Art
The Map That Revealed How Ancient Egyptians Pictured the Afterlife
Hunefer's Book of the Dead. Photo by Steven Zucker via Flickr.

Hunefer's Book of the Dead. Photo by Steven Zucker via Flickr.

In the spring of 1915, in the dry, heavy heat of the Egyptian desert, an expedition of archaeologists unearthed the final resting place of a man and his wife.

The team—made jointly of representatives from Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—made their discovery in a place called Deir el-Bersha, on the east bank of the river Nile and far south of the pyramids of Giza. The deceased man, as it turned out, was a former administrative official. At the time of the couple’s death, during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (ca. 2040–1640 BCE), the tomb had been resplendent with grave goods. But throughout the following centuries, it fell victim to the ravages of looters. Anything that appeared valuable (jewelry and gold, mostly likely) was spirited away.

What remained—and what the archaeologists found millennia later—were the coffins that had housed the remains of the couple, both named Djehutynakht. Made of imported cedar, and nested (the male Djehutynakht had two progressively smaller coffins, and his wife had three), the coffins proved one of the most valuable finds of Egyptian archaeological history.

Back side panel of the outer coffin of Djehutynakht, 2010–1961 B.C. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Back side panel of the outer coffin of Djehutynakht, 2010–1961 B.C. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Today, this ancient burial chamber is known as Tomb 10A. Several of the wooden coffins found within were covered with writing and painted iterations of food, clothing, and funerary objects—almost all of it on the interior, on the surfaces closest to the deceased. The scope and content of the decoration astounded archaeologists and revealed much about how the Egyptians manifested visual representations of death, the afterlife, and funerary practices.  

For the ancient Egyptians, death was not a conclusion, but rather an act of revival: With the proper assistance, the deceased could reach the afterlife and enjoy existence in that realm. But it wouldn’t be easy. “They believed reaching the afterlife would be a challenge,” explains Denise Doxey, curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and near Eastern art at the MFA Boston. The writing on the coffins’ interior—dubbed the Coffin Texts—“were thought to protect [the Egyptians] against the dangers they would face en route to the afterlife,” Doxey continues. “Scenes in tombs and on coffins were intended to magically produce food, clothing and other provisions for use in the afterlife.”

In Tomb 10A, for example, images of jewelry, weapons, pillows, and even shoes find their way onto the wood. In addition, Doxey notes, the burial chamber contained the most wooden funerary models ever found in a single tomb—sculptural representations of real-life objects that would provide sustenance and more in the afterlife. As Tomb 10A revealed, the Egyptians believed a painted set of sandals would be as much help in the afterlife as actual woven ones.  

But before the food and the sandals and the weapons could be used, the deceased first had to find his or her way to the afterlife—a journey rife with trials and dangers. Prior to the Middle Kingdom, Doxey says, Egyptians relied on either written texts or verbal descriptions to find their way. But in Tomb 10A, painted on the interior of one of the coffins, was one of the first known maps to the underworld: a visual diagram detailing how best to get to the afterlife. Known as the Book of Two Ways, the map was visualized as two undulating paths, replete with gatekeepers and demons one would encounter on the way to the afterlife.

Head of the inner coffin of Governor Djehutynakht, 2010–1961 B.C. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Head of the inner coffin of Governor Djehutynakht, 2010–1961 B.C. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In a 1950 article penned by Wilhelm Bonacker, the Book of Two Ways is classified as the oldest example of the “Guides to the Beyond.” There are six of these Guides, including the Book of Two Ways, and all but one are illustrated. “Pictures,” Bonacker writes, “are essential supplements to the inscriptions, the sense of which cannot be grasped without them.”  

Although the exteriors of the coffins at Deir el-Bersha are only sparsely decorated when compared to their interiors, they do feature several sets of painted eyes. As was the practice in the Middle Kingdom, the body would be laid on its side, allowing the deceased to peer out through the eyes at any visitors to the burial chamber.

Today, we have the opportunity to rest our own eyes on the coffins from Tomb 10A. To see them is to see the objects that accompanied Djehutynakht and his wife into the afterlife. And to see the Book of Two Ways, painted underfoot, is to see the route they took to get there.

Gabrielle Hick