Egypt's Crowning Glory

New Kingdom customs rise triumphantly from the dead in "The Quest for Immortality," a dazzling display of treasures from the tombs of the pharaohs

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“People started preparing for the next world as soon as they could afford to,” says the show’s curator, Betsy Bryan, who chairs the Near Eastern Studies department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “They bought coffins, statues, you name it, from the time they were young marrieds, and stored them in their homes. When they invited people over, everybody knew exactly what they had and how good the quality was.” The New Kingdom elite could have it both ways: behaving devoutly while consuming conspicuously.


Because so much of the finery we know from ancient Egypt came from tombs, it’s hard to say what was worn in life and what was designed only for the crypt. Either way, jewelry and cosmetics were imbued with magical powers. The exhibition includes a gold bracelet (c. 1550-1525 B.C.), inlaid with precious stones and shaped like a vulture, that was found on the mummy of Queen Ahhotep, mother of New Kingdom founder King Ahmose. Inside her gilded wooden coffin, and probably in life as well, Ahhotep wore the bracelet, Bryan says, to identify herself with the great sky goddesses, such as Nekhbet and Nut, who took the form of vultures spreading their wings across the sky to provide a path for the sun to follow on its daily travels. Like the jackal-headed god Anubis, Nekhbet was a protector of the dead. Thus animals that normally preyed on corpses became, in the Egyptian pantheon, their guardians.


Some adornments were clearly designed strictly for the tomb. Aheavy plaque of hammered gold from around 1000 B.C. depicting the winged goddess Maat was probably once affixed to a royal mummy.Areassuring symbol of harmony and natural order, Maat accompanied the sun on its daily cycle, hence the sun above her head. Egyptians believed the goddess would make their passage through the afterworld as smooth and predictable as the daily sunrise. Amore ostentatious example of funerary gold is the mummy mask of Wenudjebauendjed, a courtier in the reign of Psusennes I (p. 50). To ancient Egyptians, gold, luminous as the sun, was the “flesh of the gods.”


Something more than masks and amulets, however, was needed to protect the flesh of the deceased from decay. Egyptian embalmers worked for 70 carefully scripted days to prepare a mummy. “First, by means of a bent iron instrument inserted through the nostrils they extract the brains,” a fascinated eyewitness, the Greek historian Herodotus, wrote in the fifth century B.C. The body was cleaned out, dried in a bed of natron salts, and carefully groomed. By the 19th Dynasty, the lungs, stomach, liver and intestines of royalty were mummified separately, then sealed in jars; the heart, believed to be the seat of thought and action, stayed put. Embalmers charged different rates for different levels of service. Adeluxe mummification could involve artificial eyes and hair extensions. For the poor, the body was simply allowed to dry out, then swaddled in linen bandages.


Egyptians pictured the deceased’s destination as a NileValley with taller crops, easier work and unlimited beer. “Being dead was just one of the modes of existence, but a finer one,” says Lawrence Berman, curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “You were more perfect when you were dead. After you were mummified, you had a stronger, better body.”



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