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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
In Pursuit of Immortality: the Artistic Spirit of Ancient Egyptian Culture

By approximately 3000 BC, the banks of the Nile River had given birth to the ancient Egyptian civilization. The annual natural phenomenon of cyclic flooding of the Nile Valley deposited fertile silt for rich farmland, encouraging settlement and helping to give rise to ancient Egyptian beliefs in regeneration and revival, as expressed in art and culture, as well as in the eternity of life. As part of this cultural backdrop, the mummification of the dead, compilation of the "Book of the Dead", paintings, polytheistic beliefs, hieroglyphic writing system, and solemn directness of sculptural carvings all explain the fusion of material and spiritual aspects of ancient Egypt and are extensions on notions of the present life and after world. Although the Age of the Pharaohs came to an end with the rise of Greece and Rome, the artistic achievements of ancient Egypt had a significant impact upon Greek and Roman culture, serving as one of the sources in the development of these later great ancient civilizations.

Granite seated statue of Sekhmet

18th Dynasty, reign of Amenhotep III
Provenance unrecorded, but probably Thebes
H143.0, W42.0, D70.0 cm
EA 65
Granite seated statue of Sekhmet

Seating and standing statues of the lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet are a common sight in many museums. Most of them were recovered from the temple of Mut at Karnak, where some are still visible. But their original provenance was without doubt the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III at Thebes, where 365 standing and 365 seated Sekhmet figures formed a litany in stone to propitiate the goddess lest she act with the negative power of which she was capable, thereby affecting the king and through him, Egypt.

Amenhotep's temple fell into decay around 100 years after his death, and was used as a convenient statue-quarry by many later pharaohs. Considerable numbers of these statues were moved to the Mut temple, and some kings added their names to the statues in their new locations, although this example is uninscribed. The socket on top of the head was for a headdress, probably a solar disc, made from a separate piece of stone.

B M Bryan in S Quirke (ed.), The temple in Ancient Egypt (London, 1997), 57-81.
Wooden anthropoid inner coffin of Djeho

Upper Egypt, Akhmim, Ptolemaic period, 305-30 BC
L176.0 cm
Purchased through: R J Moss & Co. Acquired in 1898.
EA 29776
Wooden anthropoid inner coffin of Djeho

Djeho's inner coffin is a classic example of an anthropoid mummy-case made for a man of high status. The divine qualities attained by the deceased in the next life are indicated by the application of gold leaf to the face and by the blue colouring of the wig; texts record that the gods were supposed to have flesh of gold and hair of lapis lazuli. Djeho's plaited and curled false-beard is another sign of his elevation to a higher state of being. The rectangular pedestal which supports the feet emphasises the coffin's sculptural qualities, and makes an allusion to the Opening of the Mouth – the ritual by which the mummy, placed upright at the entrance to the tomb – was reanimated. The images and texts below Djeho's large amuletic collar are associated with the safeguarding of the dead man in the hereafter. Over the breast is painted a figure of the sky-goddess Nut, with wings outstretched in a gesture of protection and flanked by wedjat-eyes. A vignette beneath shows the mummy of the deceased on a bier, with canopic jars below, flanked by figures of Isis and Nephthys in mourning. Below, a hieroglyphic inscription in vertical columns assures Djeho of the protection of Nut, while figures of deities armed with knives ward off any hostile entities that may threaten his security. At the foot of the lid are two figures of the jackal embalmer-god Anubis, whose role was to mummify the dead and to protect them in their tombs. These figures are rotated through 180 degrees to make them visible to the spirit of the deceased looking out through the painted eyes of the coffin-mask.

C Andrews, Egyptian Mummies (London, 1984), 48-9, fig. 59.
'The Unlucky Mummy'
Wooden mummy-board; painted detail on plaster.

Egypt, early 22nd Dynasty, about 945 BC.
Height: 162 cm.
Donated through: Mrs Warwick Hunt. Donated by: Arthur F Wheeler. Acquired in 1889.
EA 22542
'The Unlucky Mummy'. Wooden mummy-board; painted detail on plaster.

This exquisitely painted mummy-board formed the innermost covering of the mummy of a woman of high rank. During the 21st and early 22nd Dynasties such sculpted and painted covers had come to replace the masks which were placed over the heads of mummies in earlier periods. The name of the owner of this example is not preserved, but the style of the decoration is a sure guide to its date and provenance (Thebes). The deceased wears a very large floral collar, through which her open hands protrude, and below this is a complex arrangement of images of deities associated with the afterlife: solar discs and falcons, the winged sky-goddess Nut, ba birds and emblems of Osiris.

Since its acquisition in 1889, the mummy-board has become one of the most famous icons of the British Museum, though not on account of its historical importance or artistic quality. It has become the focus for a vast web of modern mythology which has its origins in the popular notion that to disturb an ancient Egyptian burial could bring down a 'curse' on those directly responsible (and even on persons only remotely involved). Although the body of the original owner has never been identified (and is not in the British Museum) the board has acquired the misleading title of 'the Unlucky Mummy'. The stories surrounding it have been perpetuated and elaborated through oral tradition, popular journalism and, more recently, via the internet. The four English travellers who brought the mummy-board from Egypt in the 19th century are said to have suffered premature death or injury, and similar misfortunes reputedly befell many others. On an early photograph of the board, the carved and painted face is supposed to have been miraculously replaced by the features of 'a living Egyptian woman of malevolent aspect.' Perhaps the strangest tale associated with the board is that it was sold to an American collector and sent to the USA on the Titanic in 1912, causing the ship to collide with an iceberg and sink. Although proof of the mummy-board's alleged supernatural powers is completely lacking, the mythology surrounding it continues to evolve.

C Andrews, Egyptian Mummies (London, 1984), 69-70.