Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The Importance of Death in Everyday Egyptian Life

My latest article for Apollo Magazine...

Coffin of Nakhtefmut (detail), Egyptian, 2nd Dynasty,
Third Intermediate Period, 945–735 BC
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Often, exhibitions of ancient Egyptian artefacts divide their galleries into objects of ‘daily life’ and those associated with ‘burial and the afterlife’, despite most of the objects deriving from the excavation of burials, and the majority of these having been used in life. The Egyptians themselves would probably have been bemused by this division; to them, death was a transition to a different state of being, where life continued. True death only occurred following the judgement by Osiris, king of the blessed dead, when a person could be sentenced to obliteration. To some degree then, preparation for death was a bit like considering what to pack for a move abroad; many of the items used in life would be just as useful in the beyond.

Nevertheless, throughout the Pharaonic Period (3030–332 BC) – the timeframe usually covered by ‘ancient Egypt’ – certain objects specifically associated with death and the rituals necessary for continued survival, such as coffins, had to be specially produced. This is why today, thousands of Egyptian coffins can be found in museums across the world – they are a staple of any collection, and along with mummies, are what museum-goers expect to see. Whether box-like or anthropoid, their wooden surfaces painted with images in striking colours of unusual deities and hieroglyphs, coffins represent ancient Egypt, symbolise it, and in turn, reinforce the popular cliché that the ancient Egyptians were a civilisation obsessed with death – a cliché often countered by Egyptologists, who insist that the Egyptians dedicated so much time to preparing for death because they loved life and feared its end.

To read the full article, follow the link: The Importance of Death in Everyday Egyptian Life.