You can’t take it with you. Or can you? The ancient Egyptians certainly tried. For centuries, their funerary customs and practices centered on one principal: What you did in this life prepared you for an even longer one, an eternity in death — a place that mimicked life. The heavily hyped exhibition To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum, which has begun its nationwide tour at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is all about those customs and practices, offering a glimpse into the netherworld of the ancient Egyptian afterlife and all the idiosyncrasies, at least as we view them today, of preparing the body for that next phase.
One of the most stunning aspects of this show, which includes a sampling of 120 artifacts from grave sites of dead Egyptians spanning the Predynastic Period (circa 4400-3000) to the Roman and Byzantine periods (30 B.C.E.-642 C.E.) — we’re talking roughly 4,000 years — is that the belief in an afterlife endured. The dearly departed weren’t simply honored in death, as we do today: They were given safe and comfortable passage for what was considered an eternal voyage.
What makes this exhibition stand apart from other Egypt-themed blockbusters is the shift in focus away from the wealthy and powerful. To Live Forever examines the deaths of the rich and known as well as the modest and relatively unknown. You can tell a lot about a person’s status in the culture by the way he or she is buried — at least in ancient Egypt. Alas, class distinctions haven’t really changed all that much.
What makes exhibitions such as these important? For starters, we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking deeply into the mirror of the past. We’ve learned a great deal about ancient cultures by discovering their remains, and the Egyptians were particularly fastidious about sending the vestiges of life underground with the dead. So we have examples of language through funerary tablets depicting scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead; we have mummified family pets, jewelry and eating utensils. In addition to mummified remains, canoptic jars contain preserved organs or symbolically represent them, with lids created in the form of powerful animal symbols, from hawks to baboons. Painted coffin lids also offer a window to the aesthetic priorities and abilities of our fore-sisters and -brothers.
In the later period this exhibition examines, at the beginning of the Christian era, funerary practices have shifted in many regards. Artistic depictions adapted to Greek influence, and the deceased are rendered more realistically on their coffin lids, for instance. Gender differences, too, can be traced: In the Naqada II Period (3500-3100 B.C.E.), weapons began to appear in men’s graves, and cosmetic palettes in women’s graves, for instance; and female figurines, possibly representing goddesses or priestesses, were sometimes found concealed under a woman’s skirt.
Egyptians saved for their burials the way some parents save for kids’ college expenses. Then, as now, we learn much about our priorities according to our spending habits; a middle-class laborer, for example, easily spent the equivalent of a year’s earnings on a single funeral and funerary objects.
An early Egyptian text proffers the following advice, summing up the Egyptian approach to death: “Make good your dwelling in the graveyard. Make worthy your station in the West. Given that death humbles us, given that life exalts us, the house of death is for life.” (Instruction of Hardjedef, from Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, vol. 1)
To Live Forever is on view at the IMA through Sept. 7. Visit www.imamuseum.org or call 317-923-1331 for ticket information.