52-foot complete Book of the Dead papyrus revealed

A 52-foot-long papyrus scroll of the Book of the Dead discovered in the necropolis of Saqqara is the first complete ancient papyrus found in Egypt in 100 years. It was found last year inside the coffin of man named Ahmose who died around 300 B.C., the early Ptolemaic era (305-30 B.C.). His tomb was discovered just south of the Step Pyramid of Djoser (ca. 2611 B.C.), a landmark which remained a popular site for burials of the Egyptian elite for millennia.

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced the discovery of the papyrus a month ago, but much to everyone in the world’s crushing disappointment, there were no photographs released. News stories were forced to use photos of other papyri to illustrate the story. That’s why I didn’t post about it at the time, to spare you the heartbreak of reading about something so cool without getting so much as a glimpse of it.

After the scroll was stabilized and moistened by experts in the laboratory of the Egyptian Museum, it was carefully unrolled. The Ministry has now released the first photographs of the complete papyrus and they are nothing short of breathtaking. The condition of the scroll is unbelievable. The details of text and illustration are sharp and undamaged. I only wish the pictures were bigger and covered more ground. Here’s hoping for a full scanning and digitization in ultra-high resolution. The unrolled scroll has now gone on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The Book of the Dead is a set of religious funerary texts that were meant to guide the deceased into the underworld. It includes incantations of the gods, songs, prayers and a roadmap of what the souls of the dead will encounter during their journey — the judgment of the gods, punishments, rewards, etc. Any ancient Egyptian who could afford it paid priests to produce a customized Book of the Dead mentioning the deceased by name. Ahmose’s name appears in the script 260 times.

The text is written in hieratic, a cursive form of hieroglyphics that was the predominant writing system in daily life. It is the longest hieratic papyrus from this period ever found in Saqqara. The text is primarily written in black ink with a few highlights in red. It contains 113 chapters from the Book of the Dead written in 150 columns of various lengths and widths. The first 15 inches of the scroll are blank space; the book then opens with a large scene depicting Ahmose worshipping Osiris. The penmanship is excellent and the columns divided to form neat groupings with space for accompanying illustrations. This indicates the book was written by accomplished (and expensive) professionals.

22 thoughts on “52-foot complete Book of the Dead papyrus revealed

    1. Hieratic was still Ancient Egyptian, so a different script of the same language written in hieroglyphics. There are some vestiges of it in the liturgical language of the Coptic Church, but as far as I know, there is no modern spoken language related to it.

  1. Quick question – you write “a complete Book of the Dead” but it’s 113 chapters and the complete Book is 189 so is it condensed into 113 or it’s not really complete?

    1. The Book of the Dead is actually a bit of a misnomer, because it was a compendium of various religious texts and different versions included different chapters. So really there are a bunch of Books of the Dead, some of which include all 189 chapters, some of which pick and choose. This one is complete archaeologically speaking because it is the entire book that was put together for Ahmose. Nothing was lost or damaged in the 2,300 years since it was made.

  2. Wow!
    It is almost unreal how well-preserved this document is.
    Thank you for your interesting and educational blog. I visit every day.

    1. It really is. Hell, even the tightness of the roll you see in the side view is impressive! I had to roll up a basic poster the other day and it took me multiple tries before I could get it reasonably sized.
      Side view of rolled up scroll

    1. That’s okay — if he wakes up just start saying those same words in reverse and that’ll put him back to sleep.

  3. We may have a ‘CODE90’ here (“croc incident”!!!) – Is “AHMOSE” a name like “John Doe”, and is he “complete”?

    Herodotus traveled Egypt in the 460’s BC and he reports in Bk.II, 85-90 about their funerary customs, three forms of embalmment to chose from, how –as far as priciest form is concerned– “with a crooked iron tool they draw out the brain through the nostrils, extracting it partly thus and partly by pouring in drugs”, how necrophilia is taken care of “in order that the embalmers may not abuse their women”, and in chapter 90 particularly that those…

    “who are “found to have been carried off by a crocodile or brought to death by the river itself” must be embalmed, where they are “cast up on land” and must be “buried in a sacred burial-place”, nor may “any friends or relatives touch them but the priests of the Nile themselves, and they must be “buried as something more than man.”

    1. Where did u read this? Any book u m8ght recommend? As per the brain beeing poored through the nostrils, I also saw it in a documentary. They would rotate the crook to “liquify” the brain and then just lean the body forward.

      1. @RAL – Back in school I had to learn Ancient Greek and one of my Greek teachers happened to be also an egyptologist.

        It all happened a quarter of a century ago, and there are certainly other and maybe even much better books, but the source for a presentation on Egypt that I had to give back then –no worries, in German– was almost entirely from a book on the exhibits in Turin, and according to my teacher, it was not all rubbish. Even if I do not remember the exact title, I am almost certain that it was what in English would be “Ancient Egypt –the religious belief”, and that you could get it from here.

        Obviously, the ‘Istituto Bancario San Paolo di Torino’ had given the book away as a present, so there *might* be an Italian or English version.

        Contrastingly, the already referenced passages are *not* from a “book” but from the man’s own manuscript, i.e. a primary source. Almost the entire ‘Book II’ is on Egypt, and the mentioned parts are in the Rawlinson translation these ones (Bk. 2, the chapters are 85-90), the Greek original is here, and for offline use –notably, *WITH!* chaper numbers– check out ‘gutenberg.org’.


  4. There is a quite compareable one on display in the Vienna Museum of Fine Arts ( Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), but in much worse condition and only preserved in parts; but same style and period.

  5. Does this papyrus, so far as has been released contain an image of the Elysian Fields (Aaru) as in other such papyri?

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