By Dr Brit Asmussen, A/Principal Curator, Cultures and Histories, Queensland Museum, Southbank
To celebrate World Book and Copyright Day on 23 April 2020, we’re shining the spotlight on the oldest ‘book’ we have in the Queensland Museum Collection.
What is a ‘Book of the Dead’?
Ancient Egyptian funerary texts are colloquially known as the ‘Book of the Dead’. Although they are called books, these don’t actually take the form of modern books as we know them today, with bound pages, words and chapters. These Ancient Egyptian funerary texts are actually collections of spells written in hieroglyphs (picture of an object representing a word, syllable, or sound) on papyrus (paper like material prepared from the aquatic plant). The papyrus was rolled, and placed with the deceased in their tomb. The spells were especially selected to help the deceased cross over from death to get to the paradise of the afterlife. This was not a straightforward journey, and it was filled with trials and hazards – the deceased could be attacked by animals and gods, or challenged to answer questions correctly. The spells helped the deceased to negotiate these perils. Wealthy individuals had such funerary texts made to order for their use in the afterlife.
Who was this ‘Book of the Dead’ written and made for?
This ‘Book of the Dead’ was made for Amenhotep, his title being the ‘Overseer of the Builders of Amun’, and also ‘Overseer of works in the Temple of Mut’. Amenhotep is believed to have held high office in the reign of his famous namesake, King Amenhotep II. Amenhotep II’s reign occurred at the peak of the New Kingdom era (circa 1420 BCE), in the period of Egypt’s greatest prosperity. Accordingly, Amenhotep had a senior supervisory role in overseeing construction of some of the famed stone structures at Karnak, remains of the temple sanctuary complex surviving at Luxor.
In 2012, Queensland Museum hosted the British Museum’s International touring exhibition Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb. Queensland Museum placed a small number of objects from Ancient Egypt on display in support of the British Museum exhibition. Dr John Taylor, British Museum Curator and expert in Egyptian funerary customs, the Book of the Dead and interpretation of hieroglyphs, viewed the four pieces of Queensland Museum’s papyrus on display, and immediately recognised part of a person’s name, and of a mother’s name, providing for the first time, information on who this funerary roll was made for.
Tomb discovery and international distribution
Following Amenhotep’s death, his tomb lay intact until it was disturbed by diggers or tomb robbers. Research by Nicholas Reeves suggests the contents from the Overseer Amenhotep’s tomb were quickly sold by antiquities dealers in February 1890. Given Amenhotep’s status as a high ranking official, the tomb was richly provisioned with high-quality pieces made by master craftsmen. Many objects from the tomb are visually very striking – featuring a stark black with gold colour scheme. Such high-quality pieces found in the Tomb went on to fetch handsome sums of money, and were quickly snapped up by collectors. Research strongly suggests that the Queensland Museum’s portion of the long papyrus roll were likely bought from a dealer in Egypt in the 1890s by E.M. [Edgar March] Crookshank, his correspondence suggesting he purchased it for 10 pounds and that he considered it a significant purchase. Crookshank was Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Bacteriology at Kings College, Cambridge. Crookshank’s portion of this papyrus (and several other objects from Egypt) were exchanged for examples of Australian mammals, birds and lungfish, which were used for teaching purposes.
Putting the ‘book’ back together
Unfortunately, over the passage of time, and due to the highly fragile nature of this ancient document written on plant-based organic material, the Queensland Museum’s papyrus portion has fragmented into thousands of pieces of varying size. Queensland Museum has recently partnered with the University of Queensland to attempt to reconstruct the papyrus roll. This collaborative project between Queensland Museum, Project Dig, and Data Science, School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering, at the University of Queensland and School of Communication and Arts UQ seeks to test the applicability of recent advances in algorithm design which suggest it might be possible to use image processing and machine learning to digitally re-join the fragments. If successful, it may allow the Queensland Museum fragments to then be digitally joined to those in other institutions around the globe. It is a lovely thought that Amenhotep’s ‘Book of the Dead’ may be whole once again, providing him with protection and guidance in the afterlife.
World Book and Copyright Day
On #WorldBookandCopyrightDay we’d like to shout out to other museums holding other major sections of this same papyrus roll:
- British Museum
- Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
- Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
- University Library of Amsterdam
- The Redwood Library, Newport
Asmussen, B., and Healy, J. 2012 The Oldest Book in Queensland. Museums Australia 21(2):25-33.
Reeves, N. 2013 Amenhotep, Overseer of Builders of Amun: An Eighteenth-Dynasty Burial Reassembled. Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 48(1): 7-36
Taylor, J. 2012. Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb. Brisbane: Queensland Museum Network.