The ancient Egyptians turned dying into an art. A new show at the British Museum leaves our critic eternally moved
Death. The mousetrap that never misses. The one, true inevitability. Wherever you get on the bus, sooner or later, it will take you to the terminus. So, given the amount of practice we have had, as a species, at dying, you would have thought we’d be pretty good at it by now. But no.
When it comes to the final touchdown, some societies are champs and others drop the ball. We, clearly, belong among the mess-ups. Our 14-year-olds stab their way to nothingness because one stares at another at the disco.
Our old people are shovelled into dying rooms and force-fed anti-psychotics to slow down their last wriggles. Technically, these grim story lines lie outside the confines of the British Museum’s magnificent investigation of the Egyptian way of dying. But, as so often happens with the best BM shows, someone else’s past seems to have much to say to our present.
The Egyptians were superb organisers of their own deaths. That much is made immediately clear by the display’s opening vista, at the centre of which stands a gorgeous, glowing, golden mummy’s mask belonging to a high-ranking Old Kingdom courtier called Satdjehuty, who stares through us with huge black almond eyes and sees something on our other side that fills her with a superb calm. O Lord, what a way to go. I want to go that way too.
Satdjehuty’s mask has been made from layers of linen soaked in plaster. Don’t ask me how the intrinsic lightness of linen has survived this plastering, but it has: one of the reasons this lovely head is so transfixing is that you can somehow sense that it weighs little more than a bird. The gold that traces the outline of Satdjehuty’s calm face, and expands from her hairline into a magnificent nimbus, makes an instant connection, too — with the sun. The point is, I read, to suggest, with art and sculpture, that the deceased woman has become a goddess. Bravo the Egyptians! What a glorious way to prepare for death.
The exhibition focuses on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a collection of magic spells and incantations that the ancients took with them to their burial chambers and whose purpose was to ensure a smooth passage through the afterlife. If three crocodiles pop up in front of you in the underworld, you do this; at the final judgment, keep your heart quiet and say this; to ensure your soul is connected eternally to your body, mix this with that. Because the Book of the Dead is basically a set of instructions, numbering 200 spells in all, 80% of this show consists of ancient hieroglyphs. And the trouble with ancient hieroglyphs is that they look like hieroglyphs to me and you.
No amount of staring at these meaningful-looking clusters of dashes and pictures actually makes them meaningful. The organisers needed, therefore, to construct a journey through a sea of unknowable signs that made sense of a belief system so complex, entire university departments have been devoted to it since we Europeans started robbing Egypt’s graves 200 years ago.
Most visitors will, like me, be aware already of the Egyptian preoccupation with death, but only dimly, on an Agatha Christie level. Mummies, burial chambers, pyramids and death masks entered the collective unconscious soon after our Egyptian grave-robbing commenced. Where did the Freemasons get their symbols? From the Egyptians. Who came up with the all-seeing eye of Osiris? The Egyptians. You have to hand it to this effortlessly mysterious ancient sign system: a typical run of hieroglyphs can make a simple shopping list look like the calling down of a plague of locusts.
This picture-packed ancient culture was Ra’s gift to our phoney mediums, our Knights Templar, our conspiracy theorists, our religious nutcases, our Belgian detectives.
Convincing us of the impenetrable mystery of Egyptian death would, therefore, have been a doddle: the basic information is engraved fuzzily within us already. This show’s ambition, however, is to shape our misshapen familiarity into proper understanding — a much more difficult task. The display succeeds brilliantly in achieving it by treating us like kids: by reducing the journey to its most basic components, then labelling and relabelling every step of the ensuing route; by spending decent money on helpful CGI displays that convert two-dimensional information into 3D imagery; by positioning spectacular sights at exactly the right junctures — the biggest coffins, the most golden mummies, the finest carvings. And by tossing in a big showbiz ending with a final son et lumière devoted to the longest Book of the Dead that survives: 37 metres of unfolding papyrus, packed with spells, incantations, pictograms and delicately drawn portraits of Ra. It repays every inch of the interest you devote to it when you finally reach here, armed with all the fine new know ledge you have acquired.
The Book of the Dead was not, initially, a book. It was a set of helpful diagrams painted on the side of a coffin or embossed onto the head-dress of a royal mummy.
Even the great golden head of Tutankhamun, whose dis covery was such a dubious blessing for the Egyptian curse industry, has spells from the Book of the Dead engraved on the back of it.
Tut’s head is not here, of course. These days, it never leaves Cairo. This display is built chiefly from the BM’s holdings — the largest such collection in the world — most of which are hardly ever on view. Papyrus is too vulnerable. And the colours with which most Books of the Dead are illustrated are too fugitive. But — and this is the main reason, perhaps, why this show is so memorable — nothing here looks particularly fragile or threatened or past it. Instead, the dramatically lit papyrus scrolls seem more colourful and complete than I ever remember them. I don’t know what the lighting designers have done here, but the effect is to make the illustrations and texts seem unusually vivid.
As fate would have it, I went to see this superb mummy fest on the day after Hallowe’en. For a telling comparison of attitudes to death, you could not ask for anything clearer than the photos that ran that night in the London Evening Standard of guests arriving at Jonathan Ross’s Hallowe’en party. There was the supposedly intelligent Stephen Fry, 53, gurning away in a warty rubber monster mask. There was Ross himself, cheap plastic horns stuck to his forehead, grinning grotesquely through crude red face-paint.
It was so unclassy, so transparently adolescent, so irredeemably silly. While the Egyptians prepared for eternity by imaging themselves as gods, we prepare for it by splashing out on plastic monster masks. And they say civilisation is dead.