Carte blanche: A word from the curator
By Dr. Matthew Betts
Canadian Museum of Civilization

Three thousand four hundred years ago, King Thutmose IV undertook the first archaeological excavation in Egypt. His goal was to discover if the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza, all that could be seen at that time, actually had a body. When his workers removed the last basket of sand from around its massive front paws, Thutmose could not have known that this sand had blown there nearly a thousand years before he was born. Nor could he foresee just how long his civilization might endure — that it would be nearly 1,400 years before the last true pharaoh, Queen Cleopatra, tumbled from her carpet at the feet of the Roman conqueror, Julius Caesar, in 48 BCE .

The sheer antiquity of this society — the longest-lived civilization in the world — is just one the many mysteries underlying our fascination with Ancient Egypt. There are numerous others: Why did the Egyptians build such monumental stone architecture and works of art, and why were texts and images painstakingly carved into their surfaces? Why did they mummify and preserve their bodies in such elaborate ways, and why did they spend their fortunes constructing tombs to house them?

It is a fundamental irony that the reason there are so many mysteries surrounding Ancient Egypt is that so much of its material culture has survived to the modern era. While the arid desert climate certainly played a role, the reality is that ancient Egyptians wanted their material culture to survive for eternity. They carefully constructed artifacts from durable substances that would resist decay, and sheltered these in cleverly engineered structures designed to stand for thousands of years.

Ancient Egyptians did these things because they believed in a unique connection between the hereafter and their everyday life. Understanding this link is perhaps the essence of demystifying Ancient Egypt. It is this connection which we examine in Tombs of Eternity: The Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. The exhibition explores ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, namely the Egyptian concept of the afterlife, and what the material culture associated with this belief reveals about their lives.

Ancient Egyptian burial ritual focused on perpetuating life, rather than commemorating it. They believed that death was simply a transition to a renewed and invigorated life which would, in many ways, emulate the life they enjoyed on earth. They filled their tombs with images and objects from their everyday lives, which they believed would magically sustain them for eternity. And they wrote prolifically: they covered the surface of their tombs and coffins with their names and prayers requesting items they would need in the afterlife. For an ancient Egyptian, to read or say a written item was to bring it to life. Writing a name in stone, so it could be read and remembered forever, was thus a certain way to ensure immortality.

Tombs of Eternity is an invitation to discover how the Egyptian belief in life after death is connected to many of the mysteries and wonders of this ancient civilization. It’s an opportunity to know the women and men whose tombs are showcased in this exhibition — to learn their names, delight in their family stories, marvel at their art and technologies, and celebrate their lives. It is an invitation to participate in their cult of the afterlife and to perpetuate the immortality that they so ardently sought. 

For Canadians, who live in a world that appears to change so rapidly, perhaps the allure of Ancient Egypt is that it has endured — immortal — as Ancient Egyptians intended. To explore Ancient Egypt and its timelessness forces us to confront our own mortality, our wish to be remembered, and our own connection to the hereafter. In a modern context where few things seem certain, there is solace in the fact that these ancient people had discovered an effective means to control their destiny.

This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Civilization.