Book of the Dead Fragments, Half a World Apart, are Pieced Together

July 18, 2021

A piece in New Zealand matched one in Los Angeles.

A torn 2,300-year-old mummy wrapping — covered with hieroglyphics from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead — has been digitally reunited with its long-lost piece that was ripped away.

The two linen fragments were pieced together after a digital image of one segment was cataloged on an open-source online database by the Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Historians at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles who saw the image quickly realized that the institute had a shroud fragment that, like a puzzle piece, fit together with the New Zealand segment.

“There is a small gap between the two fragments; however, the scene makes sense, the incantation makes sense and the text makes it spot-on,” Alison Griffith, an Egyptian art expert and an associate professor of classics at the University of Canterbury, said in a statement. “It is just amazing to piece fragments together remotely.”

Ancient painted mummies found in Egypt more than 400 years ago were finally examined with CT scans.

Both fragments are covered with hieratic, or cursive, script, as well as hieroglyphics that depict scenes and spells from the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian manuscript thought to guide the deceased through the afterlife.

“Egyptian belief was that the deceased needed worldly things on their journey to and in the afterlife, so the art in pyramids and tombs is not art as such; it’s really about scenes of offerings, supplies, servants and other things you need on the other side,” Griffith said.

Versions of the Book of the Dead varied from tomb to tomb, but one of the book’s most famous images is the weighing of the deceased’s heart against a feather, according to the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), which was not involved with the new finding. The tradition of including the “Book of the Dead” in burials began with inscriptions, known as the Pyramid Texts, written directly on tomb walls during the late Old Kingdom, and was initially offered only to royalty buried at Saqqara.

The earliest known Pyramid Text was found in the tomb of Unas (who lived from around 2465 B.C. to 2325 B.C.), the last king of the Fifth Dynasty, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

However, as beliefs and religious practices changed, Egyptians began including adapted versions, known as the Coffin Texts, that were written on the coffins of nonroyal people, including wealthy elites, according to ARCE. By the time of the New Kingdom (around 1539 B.C.), the afterlife was thought to be accessible to all who could afford their own Book of the Dead, and was written on papyrus and linens that were wrapped around mummified bodies, according to ARCE and the University of Canterbury statement.

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