Thursday, October 26, 2023

A new Book of the Dead manuscript excavated in Egypt

AND ANOTHER ONE: Ancient Egyptian cemetery holds rare 'Book of the Dead' papyrus and mummies. Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered an ancient cemetery that has stone sarcophagi, coptic jars and even a "Book of the Dead" scroll (Owen Jarus, Live Science).
Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered a 3,500-year-old cemetery that contains a "Book of the Dead" papyrus.

The cemetery, at Tuna al-Gebel in central Egypt, dates back to the New Kingdom (circa 1550 to 1070 B.C.) and contains mummies, sarcophagi, amulets and numerous "shabti" (also called ushabti) figurines that were meant to serve the deceased in the afterlife, according to an Arabic statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The "Book of the Dead" papyrus found in the cemetery is about 43 to 49 feet (13 to 15 meters) long. Archaeologists from the ministry have been excavating the site since 2017 and found the cemetery recently.


That is a substantial length, but nowhere near the longest ever found.

In the last couple of years two manuscript of the Egyptian Book of the Dead have been excavated, both at Saqqara. One is an excerpt and the other a fuller collection of the spells. (The many manuscripts of the Book draw on a canonical corpus of spells, but each manuscript varies in which and how many spells it contains.) See here, here (where I spell out some broader implications of the find, which this new manuscript supports), and here.

I happen currently to be reading a translation of the Book of the Dead, inspired partly by these discoveries and partly by my own recent research interests. If you are inclined to do likewise, here is some advice.

The Book of the Dead is a fascinating, but very demanding read. Before you tackle it, I advise you to acquaint yourself thoroughly with ancient Egyptian mythology. And have your mythology book handy to consult as you read it. Otherwise you will find the Book entirely baffling.

The best-known English translation of the Book of the Dead is the one by E. Wallis Budge, published by the British Museum in 1920. He translated the long Papyrus of Ani, which he himself acquired for the Museum. His translation is long out of copyright, and you can find it for free on the internet. Penguin has also republished it with a 2008 introduction by Egyptologist John Romer (which I have not read). I'm sure Romer's introduction is informative, so do read that, but Budge's translation itself is badly dated and only of historical interest. You can do better.

I have found two more recent translations.

A second translation of the Papyrus of Ani was published by Raymond O. Faulkner in 1972 (rev. ed. 1985, various reprints, translation unchanged): The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (British Museum). It is lavishly illustrated with color photos of vignettes from numerous copies of the Book of the Dead in the British Museum. I am currently reading it.

Faulkner was a specialist in Egyptian funerary literature. He also published translations of the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts. His translation is only half a century old, so a big advance over Budge's, but presumably still somewhat dated.

Next on my reading list is Paul F. O' Rourke, An Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Sobekmose (Thames & Hudson, 2016)

The Papyrus of Sobekmose is another manuscript of the Book of the Dead, this one in the Brooklyn Museum. It is from the mid-second millennium BCE, perhaps a couple of centuries or so older than the Papyrus of Ani. It is also arranged differently and contains fewer of the spells. This is the most recent translation of the Book of the Dead I could find.

As far as I know, these are the only English translations of a complete manuscript of the Egyptian Book of the Dead published more recently than Budge's. That said, I am not an Egyptologist and I may have missed something. My interest is that of a well-informed amateur. But I hope you find some of the above helpful.

UPDATE (27 October): An English translation of the longest manuscript of the Egyptian Book of the Dead has just come out. See here.

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