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.