Life After Death: Visiting 'Death On The Nile' at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

1822 was a momentous year for Egyptology. It was the year that Champollion first published his theories on the decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. The modern fascination with Ancient Egypt was born. The subject of Egyptology became a field of academic study. 

It was also the year that the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge received its first Egyptian objects, thanks to Barnard Hanbury and George Waddington, alumni of the university. The following year, 1823, saw the donation of the lid of Ramesses III's sarcophagus to the Fitz, by Belzoni. 

The Fitzwilliam Musem, Cambridge. Image courtesy of Andrew Dunn

The Fitzwilliam Musem, Cambridge. Image courtesy of Andrew Dunn

From these auspicious beginnings, the Fitzwilliam Museum has acquired a world-class collection of Egyptian antiquities, and it is from this collection that the recent 'Death on the Nile' exhibition drew so heavily, and to wonderful effect. 

Visiting earlier this year, I was struck by a number of things - the coherence of the exhibition, the atmospheric display, and the superb objects on display. It's no coincidence that the Fitz ended up so laden with treasures - the distribution of finds in the late 19th and early 20th century tended to work on the principle that 'subscribers' (patrons, or supporters) of excavations would receive a share of the finds. In the foreword to the excellent exhibition catalogue, the curator Helen Strudwick explains: 

The mechanism by which excavation finds were shared between interested parties is well illustrated by an example of the distribution of artefacts from Garstang’s excavations in the winter of 1902-3 at Beni Hasan... . The Fitzwilliam Museum’s director at the time, M. R. James, was a member of Garstang’s syndicate, holding shares both as an individual and in partnership with three other people. [Strudwick explains that James was invited to view the ‘lots’ and choose which to take] James seems to have been fourth to choose and opted for ‘The complete tomb deposit of Khety’
— Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt
Ostracon showing stubbled man using a chisel. Image ©Fitzwilliam Museum

Ostracon showing stubbled man using a chisel. Image ©Fitzwilliam Museum

There were so many wonderful objects, but a few stand out in my memory - the coffin of Khety (E.71.1903) on which it is possible to see the draughtsman's red guidelines around the inscription, giving a freshness to an ancient object. The famous ostracon (see right) showing a stubbled man with a chisel, reminding us that the people who worked on the lavish funerary objects wanted to be remembered as well as the elite for whom they toiled. 

The coffin of Userhat (the inner coffin, to be precise; the outer entered the University of Liverpool collection) which had split in antiquity and was rebound with rawhide was also on display. An ancient case of waste not, want not! 

A fascinating sequence was based on the use of acacia wood veneers from the coffin of Irethereru (E.14.1926), which were pegged onto the coffin with wooden dowels, and enhanced with red earth and the inscriptions filled with white calcite or Egyptian blue. The colours were vibrant and the technology fascinating. There was an excellent reconstruction of how the panels were affixed to the coffin uprights, which really brought to life the ingenuity of these craftsmen. 

Special mention must go to the papyrus of Ramose, of which one sheet was on display (E.2.1922), showing the sumptuous painted detail of the linen garments worn by Ramose and his wife as they prepare to enter the Fields of Iaru - the culmination of their arduous and dangerous journey through the Afterlife, to join Osiris. The luminous quality of the painted scenes underscored the fact that for Egyptians, death was to be welcomed as the start of a journey towards a better life, rather than feared as a dark end. 

A sheet of the Papyrus of Ramose, E.2.1922

A sheet of the Papyrus of Ramose, E.2.1922

It was refreshing that the exhibition did not allow photography (because of the focus on the use of paint on various media, and the delicate nature of these objects), as it ensured that visitors actually looked at the objects through their eyes rather than a camera lens, and the movement through the exhibition was natural, rather than being held up by gaggles of people all photographing the 'star' objects. The atmospheric lighting added to the sense of wonder (and I'll be honest, it's been a while since I've felt that in an Egyptian exhibition!) although there were a few instances where the dim conditions made it harder to see inscriptions than I would have liked. 

All in all, a triumphant exploration of the life and light that Egyptians saw in death, a masterful display of highlights of a brilliant collection, and a thoughtful presentation of the work of conservators and restorers in the study of Egyptology. If you missed it, you can buy the catalogue here