The scroll of spells a rich Egyptian took to his grave to guide him through the afterlife remained tightly wound, hidden from prying eyes for 2,300 years. Until now.
The Book of the Dead of Amen-em-hat, a newly unveiled treasure belonging to the Royal Ontario Museum, is a seven-metre papyrus scroll written and illustrated with excruciating care by a scribe for Amen-em-hat to take with him to his tomb.
It offers a striking glimpse into the precautions the ancient Egyptians took to travel smoothly through the afterlife. The dire consequences of a heart laden with sins - murder, theft or just sullenness and eavesdropping - are clear for all to see on the scroll: The sharp teeth and fearsome demeanour of the monsters of the Netherworld await the unworthy.
Little is known about Amen-em-hat, but he is presumed to have been a man of considerable wealth who lived around 300 or 320 BC. His Book is the focus of the ROM's newest exhibit, O ut of the Vaults: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, and will be seen by the public for the first time in more than 2,000 years.
It's one of thousands of these Books scattered in pieces across the globe that have caught the eye of top museums: The British Museum and The Louvre will both host major exhibitions of their own on Books of the Dead in the next 18 months. And it took an outsider's eye to spot the treasure the ROM had tucked away on its own storage shelves.
"This is a discovery," said Dr. Krzysztof Grzymski, the ROM's senior curator of Egypt and Nubia. "In this case we're pioneers, but totally by accident."
The ROM has owned Amen-em-hat's Book for roughly 100 years.
Museum founder Charles Trick Currelly bought it rolled up from a dealer in Egypt. It was in two pieces when it entered the museum's collection, which also includes fragments of four other Books. But unravelling the fragile, brittle, precious texts is time-consuming and expensive, and for nearly a century the Book's hymns and spells stayed tightly wound in the ROM's vault.
Then, in 2003, a PhD student at the University of Bonn in Germany sent Grzymski a standard inquiry about Books of the Dead on behalf of Professor Irmtraut Munro, who is compiling a database of the roughly 4,000 ancient Egyptian Books of the Dead that still exist. The ROM sent Munro photos of their fragmentary collection, one of which piqued her interest so much that she travelled to Canada to see it soon afterward.
What she found was a Book of the Dead with particularly unique writings and illustrations, and she soon had conservators working two-month stints in Toronto, laboriously unravelling Amen-em-hat's Book. "It's [entirely]unrolled for the first time since they rolled it up and put it into the tomb," Grzymski said.
The impressively sturdy papyrus, though riven with cracks and worm-eaten edges, bears writings and pictures that remain stunningly vivid thanks in part to the Egyptian climate, which has helped preserve untold numbers of paper artifacts through the last four millennia.
"The hieroglyphs are really clear and beautiful, just as they would have been a thousand years before," said Gayle Gibson, an Egyptian expert in the ROM's education department.
As for the text itself, much of it is challenging, written in a language that would have seemed archaic even to Amen-em-hat himself - the equivalent of someone today writing in Chaucerian English. Still, some parts are simplistic, others lyrical and poetic.
Books of the Dead were an essential part of death for ancient Egyptians. They vary widely in composition, typically tailored to the individual's wishes, but all contain spells and instructions for smooth passage to the afterlife that were entombed along with a body. The wealthy Amen-em-hat could afford to commission this lengthy, lavish specimen, which combines hymns to the gods and illustrated vignettes showing how to avoid dangerous monsters.
The illustrations and text also told the deceased how to pass the central test of the passage to the afterlife. In the Hall of Judgment, they believed, the deceased's heart would be placed on a scale and weighed against a feather, the emblem of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. The deceased need not have been perfect, but good enough to achieve balance with Maat, Gibson explained.
Those with less money had to settle for shorter Books with fewer spells or without illustrations, or they could buy formulaic copies. Some even settled for simply placing a special carved scarab over the heart.
These scarabs and a range of other ancient Egyptian artifacts will make up the remainder of the 130-piece exhibition, 128 of which are been taken out of storage as part of the ROM's Out of the Vaults series. The project aims to expose the public to more of the millions of unseen pieces in the museum's collection.
For all the Egyptians' superstitions, Grzymski and Gibson are struck by the similarities the Book's central ideas and rituals bear to thousands of years of cultural and religious thinking.
"I came to you with my hands bearing Truth, and my heart has no lies in it. I place Truth before you, for I know that you live by it. I have done no wrong in this land," reads one plea to the gods.