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Brooklyn Museum to publish a handbook for the recently deceased

Researchers have translated an ancient Book of the Dead from the institution’s collection into English

Book of the Dead of the Goldworker of Amun, Sobekmose, from Saqqara, Egypt, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, around 1479BC-1400BC. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

Researchers at the Brooklyn Museum have translated into English an unusual ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead scroll from the institution’s collection. The piece, rare because it is inscribed on both sides, is an early example of a funerary text that started to appear widely in the New Kingdom, which began around 1550 BC.

The Book of the Dead offers guidelines on how to navigate the afterlife, which the ancient Egyptians viewed as “very strange and potentially hostile environments”, says Paul O’Rourke, a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum who has been studying the scroll. One section depicts the sun god Ra in a boat guiding the dead across a ring of fire. At another point, the scroll explains to the deceased how to get past a portal guarded by knife-welding demons.

Translating such scrolls can be difficult, O’Rourke says, because scholars often assume a degree of uniformity across manuscripts that does not actually exist. Later scribes, working around two to four generations after the piece now at the Brooklyn Museum was made, did attempt to introduce some standardisation to the Book of the Dead. “But with early works like this, there was a lot in flux,” O’Rourke says.

Though it is not possible to date the piece with perfect certainty, recent carbon dating places it around 1620BC to 1430BC. But based on the overall layout of the piece and the extensive use of the hieratic writing style on the scroll’s front, O’Rourke believes that it is from the early 15th century BC.

Segments of the piece have been lost and O’Rourke says it is important not to guess what they would have contained just because other Books of the Dead follow a particular convention. “When translating this, I left the missing text blank,” he says. “You can’t assume to know what it would have said.”

The scroll was partly translated with it was installed in the museum’s mummy chamber in 2011. “We got a lot of feedback from the public,” says O’Rourke. “People were asking: ‘Where’s the rest of it?’” The museum plans to eventually publish the translation as a book, but it won’t be completed for at least another year or two.

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