Everybody has been into it at one time or another, including just about all the major world religions. Immortality. The need to stick around. For Muslims, it meant paradise forever, with 17 virgins (or pearls of wisdom, depending on the translation) for every guy. For Christians, it meant heaven where, if our most vocal moralists are correct, you get to spend eternity with our most vocal moralists. For Buddhists, countless rebirths were par for the course, though if your consciousness failed to evolve sufficiently you might come back as a hamster.
For the ancient Egyptians, immortality was something to be strived for. No guarantees, but if you played your cards right you might be able to swing it. It helped to be powerful, or at least have powerful connections. NOMA's Quest for Immortality exhibition offers an insightful look at how they went about it, with fascinating objects and artifacts dating from up to 4,000 years ago. And while the quality of the objects is excellent, the overall concept of immortality makes for an intriguing organizing principle around which to put together a show.
Strange to say, a lot of this stuff seems oddly familiar thanks to old mummy movies, back issues of National Geographic and various TV documentaries. Perhaps for that reason, the big stuff, the various sarcophagi and such, have an almost deja vu quality about them. But the littler things can be unexpected and quirkily interesting. For instance, some little gold fingers and toes (yes, toes, with toe rings) caught my eye in a display case. Turns out they're called Finger Stalls and Toe Stalls, the latter having been found on the feet of King Psusenne (1039-991 BCE), where they were placed to support his mummified extremities during his travels. It seems that human immortality paralleled that of Re, the sun god, who died every evening at twilight and was reborn at dawn after a hard night of challenges in the netherworld.
More predictable are items such as the spectacular falcon-headed collar found on the body of Princess Neferuptah, circa 1786 BCE. Made of gold, carnelian and feldspar, it's hard to look at it and not think of, well, yes ... Elizabeth Taylor. But a nearby belt/girdle made of hollow, cast-gold cowery shells, is sexy, amazing and unexpected. Other startling gold items include a Burial Mask of Wenudjebauendjed, a noble in the court of Psusennes I. Designed to cover the face and neck, it has an eerily lifelike presence. Among other glittering rarities are gold and jeweled items from the royal tombs at Tanis, hailed as the most important discovery since Tutankhamen's tomb. As you may gather from all the jewelry, the ancient Egyptians, unlike later civilizations, really did think that you CAN take it with you. They wanted to look sharp, yet be ready for the rigors of the netherworld. In this latter vein, from the tomb of Amenhotep II, is an 8-foot-long royal boat, a sub-compact version of his Nile river cruiser.
Getting the deceased ready for those arduous voyages through the netherworld was no small matter, as we see in a reconstruction of the tomb of Thutmose III, with hand-painted walls replicating the Amduat, the Egyptian book of the dead. Here the walls are covered with hieroglyphs describing the sun god's journey through the night and his accompaniment by the pharaoh into the triumphal rebirth of the new day. Details of the mummification process are also alluded to in items such as the Canopi Chest of Queen Nedjmet, a nicely carved wooden box used to hold internal organs. (A long iron hook was used to pull the brains out through the nostrils. Other organs were less difficult.)
All in all it makes for an engaging stroll down a pharaonic memory lane, and you can't help but notice how stylish all those ancient artifacts still seem. And while we have no immediate way of knowing how successful the ancient Egyptians were at achieving immortality on their own terms, the fact that people are still gawking at what is left of them suggests that they were highly successful at the kind of immortality that we, modern Americans, value most: the pseudo-immortality of celebrity, the ability to turn heads and be talked about years, or even eons, after being tucked away in their graves.
- Burial Mask of Wenudjebauendjed, from NOMA's Quest for Immortality exhibit, like much jewelry from the ancient Egyptians, is more evidence they really did believe you can take it with you.