WE might think ancient Egpyt was obsessed with death, but mummification was meant to celebrate and continue life, and this impressive National Museum collection can tell us much about our own religious traditions
‘DO NOT go gentle into that good night. / Old age should burn and rage at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But as Dylan Thomas knew full well, our grim companion with his scythe is unmovable and perfectly indifferent, no matter how we rage or plead. Nevertheless, the belief that this is not the whole deal and the consequent search for some way around death’s finality has preoccupied humanity since before the dawn of history. No matter how ineffectual in the end, our attempts have nevertheless been responsible for much of the greatest art. As far as we know, it was the Egyptians who came up with the idea of resurrection, that all this was but preparation for something better, but as soon as humanity settled down to an agrarian lifestyle, the model was there in the cycle of the year, the return of the light and the rebirth of spring, which still give us Christmas and Easter. For the Egyptians, this cycle of renewal was especially dramatic because it depended on the annual flooding of the Nile, a phenomenon only fully explained in recent times. Certainly the idea took early hold there that subsequently shaped Christianity.
Death and burial as proper preparation for the afterlife became the central preoccupation of Egyptian art. It was almost an industry, and it has left us with an astonishing wealth of art and artifacts. The discovery of the art of ancient Egypt also coincided with the formation of our major museums, and so they contain some remarkable Egyptian collections. The National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden in the Netherlands is particularly well endowed. Loans from there form the core of the exhibition Fascinating Mummies at the National Museum of Scotland, supplemented from the museum’s own rich holdings. Incidentally, this is also the first show in the museum’s new dedicated exhibition space.
We are inclined to see Egyptian art as morbidly preoccupied with death, but the exhibition sets out to make clear that life, not death was its central concern, or at least life’s continuation, not its end. The exhibition sets out all the stages of preparation for burial and all the ancillaries. There are the mummies themselves, several still in their linen wrappings with a net of turquoise faience laid over them to represent the blue sky of heaven. There are elaborate coffins, richly decorated with painted scenes and symbols. Sculpture, large and small, ranges in subject from gods to servants, buried in effigy with their masters and mistresses to tend to their needs in the afterlife. There are also beautifully intricate gravestones, as well as charms and amulets with complex but evidently essential meanings. Women were buried with their jewellery so they could appear properly dressed in their future existence. The Egyptians definitely did not subscribe to the idea that you can’t take it with you. Books of the dead, illuminated papyrus manuscripts, served as guidebooks to the afterlife, and were considered indispensable.
The range of what has survived is astonishing. If the Egyptian religion was in the end no better than any other in securing immortality, Egyptian art and indeed one of its principal objectives, the preservation of the bodies of individuals in mummified form, has survived to an extent that is so extraordinary it is itself like a form of immortality. The climate is so dry that fragile materials that wouldn’t last a week exposed to the Scottish climate are still as new after three or four thousand years. One coffin here from the Roman period, for instance, has its owner’s name and other details written on the bare wood in ink, but it is perfectly legible 2,000 years later. Indeed one of the consequences of the wealth of detail that survives is that, once the code of the hieroglyphs was cracked, inscriptions could be read that reveal a great deal about individual identities.
The climax of the exhibition is a room devoted to a priest called Ankkhor who lived and died in Thebes in the seventh century BC. The point of it is to bring home how vividly present he still is as an individual. Details of his life are given on the wall. His mummified body in its linen wrappings is displayed beside his three coffins. Two are anthropomorphic and are richly painted. The outside one is a sarcophagus. All three fitted one inside the other like Russian matryoshka dolls. Although his mummy is undisturbed, modern scanning methods allow us to see all the amulets and charms, folded into his grave clothes, that were felt necessary to secure his passage to the afterlife. Similar scanning of the mummy of a young woman in the Museum’s own collection has likewise revealed not only a range of amulets, but also a book of the dead still in place in the wrapping.
The coffins were major works of art. This was a very conservative society and change was slow, nevertheless there was change. The first coffins were rectangular. An example here from c.1900BC was the coffin of a priest called Khnumhotep. It is quite plain, with hieroglyphs around its edge and a pair of eyes gazing out at you. The owner was buried on his side, and these were his eyes looking out. These plain sarcophagi were succeeded by the more familiar anthropomorphic coffins like those of Ankkhor and several others here. The material many are made of, cartonage, is a mixture of plaster and linen. It is little more substantial than papier maché, yet not only are these intact, but their paint seems fresh as the day they were painted.
The biggest threat these tombs and elaborate burials faced was from people, not nature. Graverobbing seems to have been a serious profession in ancient Egypt, probably practised by the same people that built the tombs. In a later age, they were more polite and were called archaeologists. A Scot, Alexander Henry Rhind, was one of the pioneers of Egyptian archaeology. His discoveries enriched our museum and he and several others are commemorated here. Their aim was not loot, however, but understanding. Before the discovery of the art of the caves late in the 19th century, Egyptian art was regarded as the beginning, the original of all that followed. It was another Scot, the painter David Roberts, who first recorded many of the sites.
Part of the exhibition is dedicated to the actual processes of mummification with detailed explanations and even a giant mummy jigsaw puzzle on a reproduction stone mortuary table, of the kind that was used for the process. Gutters and drains remind us what the original gruesome purpose was. There are also examples of the beautiful stone pots in which all the vital organs except the heart were stored. The heart, the seat of your being and direct equivalent of the Christian idea of the soul, was usually kept in place. Entering the afterlife, it would be weighed before the god Osiris, represented here in a magnificent bronze, and you would be judged, just as Christ weighs souls on the Day of Judgement.
If it all seems a bit macabre, the Apostles’ Creed that is still widely used in Christian churches specifically states “I believe in the resurrection of the body”. This echo of the ancient Egyptian practise is, however, not easy to reconcile with the “dust to dust and ashes to ashes” of the Christian funeral service. If they both are true, they suggest potential reassembly problems when the Last Trump sounds. If you return to dust and ashes, surely some of your vital atoms might be recycled as someone else, and then what would you do? Imagine the squabbling on the Day of Judgement. Perhaps there is something to be said for being mummified after all. At least you’ve got a start when the Resurrection comes.
• Fascinating Mummies, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Until 27 May