Ancient Egyptians faced tricky compromises over how they would be seen dead, a new exhibition at New York’s Brooklyn Museum reveals. “To Live Forever: Art and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt,” emphasizes the often unpalatably expensive options that lay before Ancient Egyptians when considering burial. They had to think long and hard about what they could afford in the afterlife.
As has often been pointed out, the phrase “you can’t take it with you” had absolutely no purchase in Ancient Egypt, and the lengths to which humans were expected to go to demonstrate material wealth in the next life made the one before it truly onerous. The average Ancient Egyptian was beholden to an elaborate shopping list of mythological, symbolic and practical must-haves quite aside from the essential body parts normally required for burial, including elaborately decorated coffins, amulets, miniature workmen, food, wine, shabtis, jewellery, weapons, statuary, charms and spells from the Book of the Dead. This racket went on for thousands of years.
The bottom line, as this excellent exhibition explains, is that furnishing a tomb was the biggest expense in an Ancient Egyptian’s life. The coffin alone could cost more than one year’s salary for an artisan. What set this all off? Apparently, it was the myth that grew up around Osiris, mythical first Pharaoh of Egypt, who was murdered by his jealous brother Set, but magically revived by his Queen, Isis, (giving her the opportunity to conceive their son, Horus), and who then embarked upon a new shadow life as god of the underworld or afterlife.
Presumably, this myth was meant to salve the ordinary man’s grief over dying kings, or death itself, since what was the point of toiling in the fields all day, every day, if it was all going to come to nothing in the end? The imaginative effort to answer this question over the millenia, and the abuse of the longing behind it, is responsible for forms of human silliness so elaborate as to threaten to eclipse everthing else we do. But this particular version had the unfortunate consequence of creating a durably convincing idea that life after death was so credible, so real, so very much, in fact, like life itself, that you best stock up with all the things you needed in this world against a similar need in the next one.
If you weren’t rich enough to be buried in a gilded sarcophagus, surrounded by black granite statuary and finely carved symbols of all the materials you might need in the next life, the exhibition explains, there was a range of options – “substitute, imitate, combine, and reuse” (which really ought to be the title of this exhibition).
Limestone, for example, isn’t as hard as black granite or granodiorite, but it’s commonly available and cheap, and will serve as a material for statues and busts. And, gosh, if you can’t even afford that, you can paint terracotta to look like granite. Yellow paint streaked with red looks a little like gilding, and white patches of paint lined with blue look like inlaid semi-precious eye pieces on a sarcophagus if you squint a bit. The exhibition lays out the contrasting options in a really simple and powerful way. A good example is the two exhibits about half way into the exhibition on the right – two head-and-shoulder pieces from separate sarcophagi (83.29 and 69.35). One is crudely made from terracotta, and painted in an inexpert, almost childish way. The other, pictured above, is a wonder of sophistication in linen, gilded gesso, glass and faience (ceramic made from sand).
There’s also a shabti – a symbolic figurine meant to help out with agricultural labor in the afterlife – that SAYS it belongs to Amunemhat, but when you examine it closer, Amunemhat’s name seems to have been added in later, over a scratched out piece of text. Brooklyn Museum Curator of Egyptian Art, Edward Bleiberg, speculates that Amunemhat may have indulged in a sneaky bit of Ancient Egyptian recycling. An even clearer example is the stunningly beautiful and elaborately painted Coffin of the Lady of the House Weretwahset (37.47Ea-d), below, which was used twice – the first time at the beginning of the 19th Dynasty, and again, with some repainting, at the end of the 20th Dynasty, a good 200 years later.
This piece has been in storage since 1937 – another testament to the Brooklyn Museum’s embarassment of riches when it comes to ancient Egyptian artefacts, as well as its thoroughly admirable efforts to keep bringing its treasures out onto the museum floor for all to see.
I asked Bleiberg how the recycling thing worked. Wasn’t there a taboo against digging up graves and taking stuff out? Bleiberg admits there’s very little information available about how Ancient Egyptians justified these practices, but he pointed out that most tombs were family tombs, and so the option was, discreetly, to decide that great-great grandma must have made it to the other side by now, so why not save a bundle and reuse her coffin?
“These objects were considered vehicles,” Bleiberg explained. However, it wasn’t something to brag about, like getting married in your grandmother’s wedding dress. Discretion, it seems, was called for. This is demonstrated in the evidence of a government program in Thebes, around the end of the New Kingdom (c.1070 BC), for recycling funeray items, about the same time that Weretwahset’s coffin was getting a new coat of paint. The documentation, according to Bleiberg, takes the form of a government officer who says he’s located the tombs the Mayor mentioned, and he’s ready to dig them up, but he needs the Mayor there to give the disinterrment sufficient authority. Clearly, there was a taboo on digging up old graves; one powerful enough to give an underling pause before carrying out his superior’s instructions.
But the heat was clearly on, and Ancient Egyptians were forced to make do and mend when it came to tombs and coffins. Bleiberg points to massive inflation as a driving force behind such changes in practise. The cost of a coffin went up from 75 deben to 200 deben about this time, he said.
The exhibition, which opened Feb 12 and runs through May 2 before embarking on a second leg of its ongoing nationwide tour, is beautifully put together. Upon entering, you’re immediately presented with a wonderfully simple and memorable explanation of the story of Osiris, Isis, Horus, and Set, laying out the powerful mythology about the afterlife in a truly accessible way.
However, the lighting is at times a little too atmospherically dim, and you have to search around for the informational blurbs about some of the bigger pieces that are in the middle of the room, such as the very impressive Large Outer Sarcophagus of Royal Prince, Count of Thebes (08.480.1a-b).
Furthermore, the small amount of interactive material – a screen showing YouTube videos about the exhibition, and a feedback screen at the end – was disappointing, even taking account of some initial technical difficulties at the press preview I attended.
The true value, here, is in seeing the comparisons in materials and sophistication laid out so clearly. It turns out Ancient Egyptians fretted over how much to spend on ultimately useless items, just like you and me – they just put them in their tombs instead of in glass cabinets in the living room.
“Once you get beyond the unusual beliefs, you discover the ancient Egyptians had exactly the same problems we have,” said Bleiberg. “It’s like I tell my teenage son: You have to make choices. Are you going to buy this or are you going to buy that?” The exhibition helps people see that Ancient Egyptians were “real human beings, even though they lived four thousand years ago,” Bleiberg said. The benefit of that insight, Bleiberg believes, can be huge. “It allows us to have sympathy for people we initially find very different from us,” he argued. “That’s very useful in today’s very interconnected world.”