Ancient Egyptian Artifacts
Beliefs about Life and Death Inform Exhibition
By Jason Sencer, PH.D / July, 2011

      The Norton Museum of Art

is presenting a fascinating show of authentic ancient Egyptian funerary objects. To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum, which can be seen now through May 8, displays more than 100 objects drawn from the world-renowned Egyptian collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

Ancient Egyptian beliefs about life, death, and the afterlife are explored through seven groups of artifacts. These objects elucidate and clarify pervasive beliefs held by the ancient Egyptians, and suggest contrasts in funerary practices of the rich and the poor in their highly charged class structure.

In earliest Egyptian history, only royalty could anticipate an afterlife. Eventually, the concept changed to include all Egyptians, high and low on the social ladder. But only the rich could expect complex rituals to prepare them for eternity.

These included elaborate embalming procedures which preserved the body by mummification and burial in splendid tombs filled with anything and everything that might be needed in the life after death. For the wealthy, embalming took up to seventy days, while the procedure took only a day or two for the poor.

The belief that life on earth was preparation for a finer life after death made it vital for ancient Egyptians to protect every aspect of their living years, and to preserve these for use in eternity. While embalmers worked to preserve the mortal remains, others stuffed the tomb with all the trappings of daily life. Furniture, chariots, bowls and drinking vessels, jewelry, toys, musical instruments, and even games were placed in the tombs of rich and royal Egyptians.

In the Norton's exhibit, a carved limestone sarcophagus, more than eighty inches long and weighing more than 900 pounds, serves as an introduction to powerful religious burial rituals. A second group of objects is centered on belief in the afterlife.

The mummy is the next topic presented. Included is a carved wood headrest decorated with images of a god and the linen-wrapped mummy of a dog, its head decorated with painted details. A small group of artifacts represents the non-royal elite.

The largest section of the exhibit displays forty-five tomb artifacts. A mummy mask, made of gilded and painted stucco, displays a startling, naturalistic portrait of the dead man. Thirty-six objects characterize the broad range of tomb paraphernalia, including a small clay doll, a handsome necklace of faience beads, and the complete, painted wood sarcophagus of a royal prince. These wonderful treasures reveal what the ancient Egyptians believed they would find in the next phase of their existence, the life after death.

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