Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum Introduction and Text Panels

Two of the main ancient Egyptian cultural beliefs that have endured for thousands of years are a belief in the afterlife, and the view that death was an enemy that could be vanquished. To Live Forever features objects that illustrate a range of strategies the ancient Egyptians developed to defeat death, including mummification and various rituals performed in the tomb. The exhibition contains funeral equipment used by the rich, the middle class, and the poor, and also reveals what the Egyptians believed they would find in the next world. The economics of the funeral are examined, including how the poor tried to imitate the costly appearance of the grave goods of the rich in order to ensure a better place in the afterlife.

Specially-designed interpretation for this exhibition acknowledges the recent political revolution in Egypt and includes speculative conjecture from best-selling science fiction author Bruce Sterling, accompanied by an 80-foot panoramic mural depicting a possible future Egypt. In much the same way that the antiquities on display offer only traces of historical evidence helping us to understand Egypt’s past, Sterling’s contribution and the accompanying mural illustrates one of many possible outcomes for the future of this dynamic and rapidly-changing country.

The exhibition fills the third floor feature gallery, and is organized broadly around the themes of Beliefs about the Afterlife: Osiris and Re; Preparing a Mummy; Furnishing a Tomb on a Budget; and The Funeral Ceremony (see associated text panels below).

Text Panels: Main Text
This exhibition explores ancient Egyptian beliefs about life, death, and the afterlife. Featuring mummies, statuary, sarcophagi, coffins, gold jewelry, and elegantly-crafted vessels, it includes fine examples of Egyptian artistic and cultural heritage. Taken together, the objects and artifacts illustrate funerary beliefs and customs practiced by ancient Egyptians—from various social classes—for nearly four thousand years.

Regardless of socioeconomic class, ancient Egyptians believed in life after death. Many practical considerations had to be accounted for when preparing a body for burial and the afterlife. What if one did not have access to elaborate materials or valuable gold? What if only simple stone or inexpensive wood were available? This exhibition sheds light on the disparity between ancient Egyptian social classes and reveals how different groups of people employed creative methods to defeat death and, ultimately, to live forever.

Specially designed interpretation for this exhibition acknowledges the recent sociopolitical revolution in Egypt and the surrounding desert region. It includes speculative commentary from best-selling science fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling, accompanied by an 80-foot panoramic mural sketching how an Egypt of tomorrow might look. In the same way that the antiquities on display offer only traces of historical evidence that help us to understand and imagine Egypt’s distant past, Sterling’s contribution and the accompanying mural suggest that there are many possibilities for the future of this dynamic and rapidly-changing culture and region.

Beliefs about the Afterlife: Osiris and Re
Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife are based on the story of Osiris, who along with his wife Isis, were Egypt’s first beloved rulers. Legend holds that Osiris had a jealous brother named Seth, who trapped his brother Osiris in a coffin designed precisely to the dimensions of his body. Seth and his accomplices threw the box into the Nile River and drowned Osiris, leaving Seth to claim the throne. Isis retrieved her husband’s body, however, and magically revived him—just long enough to conceive a child named Horus. Isis built temples for Osiris where she placed offerings that he could retrieve in the afterlife—establishing the precursor of the tomb. Osiris became king of the afterlife, while Isis raised their son Horus, who eventually defeated his uncle Seth and became king of Egypt. The tale of Osiris and Isis became a touchstone for all ancient Egyptians, who wanted to vanquish death by achieving rebirth in the afterlife—just like Osiris.
The sun god Re was one of the most important gods in the ancient Egyptian belief system. In the daytime world of the living, ancient Egyptians believed that Re traveled in a boat through the sky—from east to west at sunset. Re entered the afterlife upon reaching the western sky, and then traveled eastward through the underworld at night. While Re traveled through the underworld he was continually attacked by the dragon-like demon Apophis. Only during the fifth hour of his journey through the underworld was Re safe in the realm of Osiris. After twelve hours in the underworld, Re was reborn on the eastern horizon of the mortal world. Many of the decorations found in royal tombs and depicted on papyrus reveal that ancient Egyptians hoped to travel with Re in his boat after their own mortal passing.

Preparing a Mummy
To ensure eternal life, ancient Egyptians believed that the body had to be preserved. Three different mummification processes were available depending on the budget of the deceased person. These methods were described by the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the fifth century B.C.E.

The most expensive preservation option involved surgical removal of the brain and internal organs. The deceased was then embalmed using natron, a naturally occurring salt that dehydrated the body in about seventy days. Priests then poured an expensive combination of imported and domestic resins into the body, which ensured that it would remain waterproof and resistant to damage from microorganisms and insects. The body was then wrapped in linen and placed in a coffin in preparation for the funeral service.

A less expensive method for mummification utilized an injection of cedar resin into the body that liquefied the internal organs, which were then drained from the corpse. The body was embalmed with natron and wrapped in linen. Finally, the least costly method for preparing a body involved basic cleansing of the internal organs by the embalmers. The organs were left inside the body. Herodotus gives no further details regarding this least-expensive method.

Furnishing a Tomb on a Budget
Furnishing a tomb was the biggest expense an ancient Egyptian would incur during his or her lifetime. A coffin alone might cost an entire year’s salary. For individuals of a certain socioeconomic status tombs were sometimes built as small, freestanding buildings or excavated into the side of a mountain. If only limited funds were available, graves were dug into the desert sand. Depending on one’s socioeconomic status, there were four strategies for furnishing a tomb on a budget: they could substitute, imitate, combine, or reuse materials.

In many instances, individuals with limited resources substituted inexpensive materials for precious ones typically used by wealthier classes. In place of gold or rare stones, they might use faience, a non-clay ceramic material made from sand. Alternatively, terracotta might take the place of stone. Sometimes colored paints were used to emulate expensive decorations found on more elaborate objects. For instance, a terracotta jar might be painted to imitate a more costly granite vessel, or a terracotta mummy mask could be painted yellow to imitate gold.

A traditional coffin set usually consisted of a lid and a mummy board that could be quite expensive. The board, situated inside the coffin, was a life-sized figure of the deceased dressed in everyday clothing placed atop the actual mummy. It was easy enough, however, to combine the traditional mummy board decoration with the lid to save money. Another cost-saving approach was introduced toward the end of the New Kingdom in 1070 B.C.E., when the government began allowing tomb objects to be recycled. Reusing objects involved removing the name of the previous owner and inscribing the object for a new user. Coffins, statues, and shabties (funeral figurines) could all be reused.

The Funeral Ceremony
While much is known about the funeral ceremonies of wealthy ancient Egyptians, scholars depend on physical evidence and objects found in graves to reconstruct the rituals of most citizens. What scholars do know is that it ancient Egyptians—regardless of their class status—desired to make the journey to the afterlife and to live there for eternity.

The ancient Egyptian funeral consisted of a series of rituals based on the tale of Osiris, the legendary king who died and was then reborn into the afterlife. Typical funeral customs included dance, music, animal sacrifice, recitation, and ritualized mourning along a route that led from the embalming house to the tomb. Tombs helped the deceased person to achieve rebirth in the afterlife. In addition to the mummified remains of the dead, tombs contained objects that were intended to be used in the next life. Men were often buried with weapons, while women were accompanied by mirrors, cosmetic containers, and grooming accessories. Coffins, statues, shabties (funeral figurines), and vessels for food and drink were also placed in the tomb for use in the next world.

During the funeral service, living persons would make offerings of food, clothing, or other necessities to be consumed or used in the afterlife. Such offerings were sometimes depicted in images on the walls of tombs. The final funeral ritual performed at the tomb was the “opening of the mouth.” This procedure symbolically activated the mummy, allowing it to see, hear, and enjoy the offerings made by the priests during the funeral ritual before it was finally positioned in the tomb.