DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE IN ANCIENT EGYPT
By John H Taylor, published by the British Museum Press at £14.99. 272pp with 170 colour illustrations. ISBN: 0-7141-1917-2
Now this is a truly fascinating study of a topic which many readers might have assumed they know a lot about. The book bills itself as a "concise introduction" but for the general reader, ie one who is not a specialist or archaeologist, it contains all that one is likely to want to know about the subject. It is also lavishly and sumptuously illustrated.
The immense appeal of Taylor's study is that whereas many popular books on Egyptian burial practices and beliefs concentrate on the already well-known practices of the New Kingdom, the author chooses to survey the development and evolution of a wide variety of topics through the 3,000 year history of Egyptian civilisation. He therefore discusses the earliest appearance of a practice, even from the pre-dynastic or early dynastic periods, through until the Graeco-Roman period or until it died out if earlier. What emerges is a picture of how Egyptian burial practices evolved in response to changing ideas or influences; for example the evolution of tombs layout and design in response to the depradations of tomb robbers, the gradual mastery of the physical techniques of mummification by the middle of the New Kingdom which allowed embalmers in later centuries to turn their attention to creating an increasingly lifelike result with the deceased, the evolution of ritual and belief related to death and the afterlife and how these were to be portrayed and expressed, and the gradual elaboration of coffins and of the decoration and ritual content of tombs. And there is much more than just that between the covers.
What Taylor manages to convey very effectively is that, far from representing an unchanging and timeless approach to death and the dead, Egyptian society's response was constantly evolving albeit slowly if not imperceptibly at times. For anyone with a serious interest in Egyptian religion and magic, this book is a real gem. Nick it if you have to.