Friday, November 17, 2023

The Egyptian Book of the Dead at the Getty Museum

THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST TODAY: Exploring the Book of the Dead through the Getty Collection (Sara E. Cole).
Getty’s Book of the Dead manuscripts include seven papyri and 12 fragments of linen mummy wrappings that are now undergoing new scholarship spearheaded by Foy Scalf, an Egyptologist who is the head of research archives at the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures at the University of Chicago. Along with Getty’s ongoing provenance research (discussed below), Scalf is studying the texts and preparing translations and analysis in order to place them within the broader context of the long history of the Book of the Dead.

The group of writings that we call the Book of the Dead developed from multiple different sources, including earlier funerary inscriptions, priestly oaths, and household spells. It was likely embedded in a strong oral tradition, as most people could not read or write. By the New Kingdom, starting around 1550 BCE, scribes started writing Book of the Dead spells on papyrus scrolls. Vignettes often illustrated key points in the text, as in the example above from spell 125, in which the deceased has his heart weighed in the presence of Osiris. Book of the Dead spells were meant to be spoken aloud. Priests would read from scrolls during the funeral, and much of the text is written as direct speech that the deceased is envisioned reciting in the netherworld.

The Book of the Dead has been getting more attention lately, perhaps due partly to the recently discovered manuscripts in Egypt. But there are many manuscripts already in museum collections. It's good to see work being done on them too.

The essay notes that there is currently a Getty exhibition on their Book of the Dead manuscripts.

As usual, PaleoJudaica has been on top of this trend. See here and links and here for recent posts.

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