Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The papyrus roll of Qenna: magical spells for the afterlife

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Exhibition about an Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ and a large-scale conservation project

A 17-metre-long, 3000-year-old Egyptian papyrus roll full of magic spells, gods and symbols: this is the ‘Book of the Dead’ of Qenna, a merchant from ancient Egypt. It is the longest papyrus in the collection of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities) in Leiden.

The museum has worked on its conservation for the past three years. Now, for the first time since its purchase in 1835, the colourful manuscript can be seen as a single continuous whole, in the exhibition ‘The papyrus roll of Qenna. Magical spells for the afterlife.’ Animations and projections bring the colourful images and magical spells to life.

The exhibition also covers themes such as the tomb of Qenna and how a papyrus was made. Special attention is paid to the conservation project and the results of the materiality research that preceded it. The exhibition, which is suitable for young and old, will run from 22 June to 4 September 2022.

Tickets can be purchased from www.rmo.nl (advance reservation is not obligatory).

Caspar Reuvens, the first director of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, bought the 17-metre-long Book of the Dead at auction in London in 1835.

Soon afterwards, the papyrus was cut into 38 manageable sheets – a common practice in those days. Only some of those sheets have ever been on display. The summer exhibition offers a unique opportunity to see this special Book of the Dead in its entirety.

Magical spells for the afterlife

The ‘Book of the Dead’ was found in the western hills of Luxor. The papyrus lay folded over the mummified body of an Egyptian merchant called Qenna, who had lived around 1300-1275 BC.

Like everyone in ancient Egypt, Qenna hoped that after death he would live an immortal life with the gods in the hereafter. For that reason, his body was mummified and a papyrus roll containing 40 magical spells was placed in his tomb. The spells were meant to help him endure trials in the underworld, protect him against monsters, and transform him into a powerful immortal being.

The exhibition follows Qenna in this metamorphosis, and introduces visitors to the stories, spells, gods and symbols. Their meaning is explained from right to left, the direction in which the papyrus should be read: from the veneration of the gods and the Lake of Fire, to the divine tribunal and the weighing of Qenna’s heart. To prove he had lived a good life, his heart could not be heavier than an ostrich feather. A magical spell invokes the god Thot to come to Qenna’s aid.

The text of the papyrus begins with the daily cycle of the sun in the form of the sun god Re, who is re-born every morning on the horizon. Each night, the sun unites with the god Osiris in the realm of the dead –like Qenna himself hopes to do. Thanks to the papyrus, Qenna knows the names of all the monstrous overseers and gatekeepers he will encounter. Qenna will only be allowed to pass safely if he utters the right names. There are also spells to defeat dangerous creatures, such as the four crocodiles who threaten to take away his magical powers, and the snake Apep, the deadliest enemy of the sun god Re. At the end of the papyrus, Qenna is able to begin his eternal life in the hereafter. The Book of the Dead concludes with his tomb in the western mountains, where the arms of the goddess Hathor push the sun over the horizon each morning, symbolising a new beginning.

Still from animation – papyrus Qenna

Conservation and research

Although the papyrus sheets were repaired several times in the past 200 years, the glue and layers of paper from older restorations were themselves causing damage. During a large-scale conservation project (2018-2022), as much as possible of the older repair material was removed. New additions were kept to a minimum, so that as much of the original papyrus as possible could be displayed. All of the small, loose bits of papyrus and pigment were re-attached, and each sheet was finally mounted between two new plates of glass. This will protect the sheets properly and they can be viewed from both sides.

All of the sheets were examined in detail by a team of conservators, curators, scientists and photographers. This was necessary to establish the condition of the papyrus and all of the old restorations, and to find out more about how the Book of the Dead was made. Techniques such as microscopic research and photography with ultraviolet and infrared light were used to analyse the various papyrus layers, ink, pigments and old repairs.                       

The research and the conservation of the papyrus were made possible by a financial contribution from the Rembrandt Association and the association’s Van der Klaauw Fund. The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden is supported by the Vriendenloterij.

‘The papyrus roll of Qenna. Magical spells for the afterlife’, 22 June–4 September 2022

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