Egypt in London: Book of the Dead at the British Museum

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Next up in our World in London series is Egypt. The British Museum is famous for its fantastic collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts and has a new Egyptian exhibition, Book of The Dead opening in November. John Taylor, the exhibition’s curator, explains what Book of The Dead is all about:

Book of the Dead is a modern term for a collection of magical spells that the ancient Egyptians used to help them get to the afterlife. They imagined the afterlife as a kind of journey you had to make to get to paradise – but it was quite hazardous, so they needed magical help along the way.

The “book” is usually a roll of papyrus with lots and lots of spells written on it in hieroglyphic script. They usually have beautiful, coloured illustrations as well. They would have been quite expensive so only wealthy, high-status people would have had them. Depending on how rich you were, you could either buy a ready-made papyrus which would have blank spaces for your name to be written in, or you could spend a bit more and choose which spells you wanted.

Some of the spells are to make sure you can control your own body after death. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person was made up of different elements: body, spirit, name, and heart and they were afraid these elements would disperse when you died.

There are also spells about protecting yourself because the ancient Egyptians expected to be attacked on the journey to the afterlife by snakes, crocodiles and insects. They were also afraid of being attacked by gods, or demons who served the gods.

Without the correct spells to protect you, you could be punished in a variety of ways: you could be put on the slaughter block, you could be decapitated, or you could be turned upside down (which meant your digestive process worked in reverse so you had to eat faeces and drink urine forever!)

The worst thing that could happen was called the second death. That meant that you were killed and your spirit couldn’t come back and so you would have no afterlife at all.

It was a world of great fear that the ancient Egyptians believed they were going into, and the Book of the Dead provided guidance and protection on this journey through the afterlife.

Book of the Dead is open from 4 November 2010 to 6 March 2011Book tickets.

Find out more behind-the-scenes information on the British Museum’s blog.

Where else can you experience Egypt, either ancient or modern, in London? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. Isabel Cristina says:

    this article published here is very rich, this exhibition will be highly successful and seductive .. Congratulations to curator John Taylor.

  2. Katy says:

    This looks great – sounds like a fab excuse for a trip to London!