It’s a book which has had many names: ‘The Book of Going Forth By Day,’ ‘Book of Emerging Forth Into Light,’ ‘The Papyrus of Hunefer,’ and ‘The Papyrus of Ani.’ Today it is known as ‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead.’ Coined by German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius in the mid-19th century, this title couldn’t be more wrong or misleading. ‘Books of the Dead’ would have been much better, as there is no one authoritative text or religious cannon on which the ‘Book of the Dead’ is based. Each one is completely unique. While some are religious in nature, most of them contain magic spells which differ from book to book. It appears only the richest or royal Egyptians could afford to have their books illustrated. Many have been found without illustrations and incomplete.
None of the books contain curses or predict bad omens, and none (sorry, Hollywood) say, “Woe to those who read these pages.” A Lonely Planet travel guide to the afterlife is probably the best description of these ancient funerary texts.
Copies of these books first turned up in Europe as early as the Dark Ages, but one which has stood out above all others arrived at the British Museum in the late 1800s. This book was owned by Amenhotep, a chief builder and royal architect who lived 3,500 years ago. He worked for another Amenhotep—King Amenhotep II—the great great grandfather of King Tut.
Amenhotep’s book is one of the largest ever found; the scroll stretches out 20 metres. It is also uniquely decorated. The borders of the scroll have illustrations of five-pointed stars and various sun discs—a feature not found in any other book of the dead. The scroll also has an inscription on one side, which again has not been found on any other book.
What it does share with others is its frustrating incompleteness. The scroll exists only in fragments, and not all the fragments are in the British Museum. Some of the book’s fragments are held by the New York Metropolitan Museum, with others at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Yet even if all these fragments were reunited, the book would still be missing about 100 fragmented pages. Without them, a complete picture of Amenhotep’s book and the insights it would bring to the modern world remain lost.
So it is a good thing the missing pieces have been found.
Around the same time an ancient witch-hunting manuscript was found at the University of Alberta (see last week’s Booknotes), John Taylor—an Egyptologist from the British Museum—was vacationing in Brisbane, Australia. While visiting an ancient Egypt display at the Queensland Museum, he noticed a piece of papyrus on display which looked familiar. When he asked about it, the museum staff took him to a store room and showed him a crate where the papyrus in question came from.
And there they were: 100 missing fragments archaeologists and Egyptologists have been searching for for more than a century.
The crate holding the fragments was part of a large donation a woman had made to the museum in the early 1900s. Museum staff are currently trying to locate her descendants.
Taylor had made the discovery of a lifetime. With help from the museums in New York, Boston, and now Queensland, he is digitizing the fragments to finally make a complete book. As Amenhotep was one of the top builders to a king who ruled Egypt during its highest peak of prosperity, the contribution to history will be worth as much as the book itself.
Mike Selby is reference librarian at Cranbrook Public Library.