Back from the dead, an ancient guide to the afterlife

Egyptian scrolls hidden in the British Museum's vaults for two centuries are finally seeing the light of day
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The Independent Online

For any ancient Egyptian of wealthy standing, the "Book of the Dead" was an invaluable roll of papyrus which kept within it all the secrets of the afterlife: spells, illustrations and incantations revealing the path from death to mummification and, finally, the liberation of the soul. Many of these "books" were acquired by the British Museum in the late-19th century, but have lain in vaults, too fragile to unfurl and never before seen by the public. Now, after an extensive period of conservation, they are to be displayed alongside a dazzling array of mummies, coffins, jewellery and statues in a major exhibition entitled Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which opens on 4 November. The Book of the Dead of Hunefer, a 5.5m-long papyrus, will be among the 192 items on display. Here we explain some of the illustrations and hieroglyphics on part of the scroll (pictured above right).

1. This is a stone tablet called a "stela". It would have been placed next to the steeple-shaped tomb of the dead Hunefer, and functions like a gravestone – with the name of the dead person and a prayer to the gods inscribed on it. The wording on the stela translates as: "An offering that the King gives to Osiris, the foremost of the Westerners, Lord of Eternity. Oh, Anubis, who is in the place of embalming. May they cause that Hunefer should go in and come out in the realm of the dead." This message is an invocation to Osiris, the god of the afterlife. The West relates to death, as the ancient Egyptians relate it to the setting of the sun, while Anubis is a jackal-headed god associated with mummification, who is both mentioned in the text and is represented figuratively, standing behind Hunefer's mummified body. The last part of the prayer refers to the wish for Hunefer's soul to be freed from his tomb and into the daylight of the afterlife.

2. Hunefer's mummified body is being held up by a jackal-headed figure. This would have been a priest wearing a mask, to impersonate the god, Anubis, who protects the dead. Other parts of this papyrus clearly state that Hunefer was an overseer to King Sety I's livestock and a wealthy scribe of high standing. The reason he is being held up in this way is so that the priests featured in the papyrus can perform a ritual to give back to the dead person his bodily faculties, in order to reanimate his body at some point in the future. He is wearing blue to denote the colour of the gods. His body may have taken up to 70 days to embalm before this final ritual was performed, as it had to be dried and packed with spices.

3. This woman is Hunefer's wife, Nasha, in a state of mourning. Her name is inscribed above her and her daughter is kneeling below. In ancient Egypt, women who were grieving exposed their bosom for the burial ritual, and Nasha is pictured in this semi-naked state. Her hand is raised to her head, a gesture of lamentation that included throwing dust on the head as part of a burial process. Women traditionally wailed and waved their arms around.

4. This figure is the third priest – the other two are in front of him wearing simple white linen skirts while he is in leopard-skin. John Taylor, the exhibition's curator, said he and the three are shown performing a ceremony to reanimate the mummy, which is called "the opening of the mouth". "They are all carrying implements with which they touch his mouth, nose and eyes in a way that is a symbolic opening up of the apertures of the head, making it possible for him to breathe, see and speak," added Mr Taylor. The priest is holding an incense burner, to purify the atmosphere where the ritual is taking place. It was also meant to summon up the spirit of the dead person. The other two priests are carrying wood-cutting tools to aid this process, along with a stick with a ram's head on it, and a pot filled with oil to pour over the mummy's head in order to further purify it before it is buried. Of the three priests pictured here, it is unclear which one is the "sem" – the most senior religious figure who leads the ceremony and is ultimately responsible for bringing the dead back to life.

5. This is a mound of food and drink that symbolises the sustenance that will be taken by the dead person into the tomb, but will actually be consumed by those attending the funeral after this lengthy ritual has been performed. The foods include flatbread, and above it, the priest is pouring water from a vase on to the funeral meal.

6. These two priests have performed a ritual sacrifice on a cow and a calf – featured behind them – and after cutting off one of the animals' front legs, and cutting out the heart, they are offering these items to Hunefer's mummy. After sacrificing the animals, they have to take the body parts to the mummy immediately, while the life force is still pulsating in them, so that it will be transferred to the dead person.

7. This corner features the leopard-skin traditionally worn by funereal priests. A series of tools which are carried by the priests are lying on top of a table, and next to it, there is a pile of food and a box that contains all the objects needed for this ceremony.