Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tales From the Crypt

We spent part of an afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts this week, mostly looking at the new exhibit, “The Secrets of Tomb 10A.” I've always been a sucker for ancient Egypt, so I had a wonderful time. 10A was the tomb of a governor and his wife who were mummified 4000 years ago. Sometime in the distant past Governor Djehutynakht's tomb was tumbled by grave robbers who made a hash of the place, ripping everything, including the chamber's mummified inhabitants, to bits. In 1915 archaeologists working for the MFA found the place, and the museum has spent decades putting things together. It's really quite fascinating. There were dozens of model boats, some symbolizing the boat that the dead would take on their journey in the afterlife, some representing boats used in funerals, and others of a more pedestrian nature, like kitchen barges (upon which little figures can be seen making beer) and fowling boats, used for hunting. Bits of the canopic jars where there, which surprisingly had feet instead of flat bottoms. Models of people about their work, making bricks or farming, were found near tiny representations of jars, bread, tools, weapons, and walking sticks, symbolically giving the deceased the things he would need in the afterlife.

I found the coffins themselves to be the most interesting. Little things, like the liveliness of the painted birds or the details on the doors painted on the inside were strangely moving and beautiful. Little painterly touches give one a sense of connection to a tomb artist of the Middle Kingdom period. I was reminded of Shelly's "Ozymandias." “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.” Nothing of the power of kings and governors lasts, but art, the work of unknown carvers and tomb painters, that lasts and is still charged with power, millennia later.

The richness and complexity of their religion is daunting. It seemed as if every surface of the coffins were decorated or written on. The robbers had broken the governor's coffin apart, affording us a view of the parts that were never meant to be seen, including the places where one panel was attached to another, forming a join. I was struck by the hieroglyphs scratched into the joins of the coffin's panels. They weren't decorated, as they would be unseen, but it was still deemed necessary to write spells here. The inside of the boxes were virtual spell books, giving the dead all the words he would need to proceed safely through the complicated, hazardous, and wonderful life that awaited Egyptians on the other side.

The complexity and diversity with which human culture makes it's efforts to come to grips with the eternal never ceases to fascinate. The ancient Egyptian effort was, perhaps, the richest and most difficult of all. Intertwining mythologies that changed based on what part of the Nile Valley you came from and what century you where there, with century after century layered on top of that, created one of the greatest wonders of mankind – Egyptian religion, and all that it inspired. Remember, when Djehutynakht died the great pyramids had been standing for about five hundred years. In all that time the culture and religion didn't stand still. It kept evolving, changing, and growing. It's only natural that he needed a guidebook.

I wonder, is religion, and all its expressions, the great collaborative art project of every civilization? In attempting to grasp truths beyond our ability to comprehend, are we in fact creating truths and beauty beyond what would otherwise be our ability to create? Looking at the care and skill that those ancient artists lavished on things both simple and beautiful, reading the the prayers and incantations written for the governor, I am moved by the power of belief.

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