Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Death on the Nile

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Death on the Nile

Article excerpt

The Fitzwilliam Museum is marking its bicentenary with an exhibition that takes its title from Agatha Christie: Death on the Nile . But it turns out it was another writer of a different type of fiction who was directly involved. M.R. James, author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary , amassed some of the exhibits in his capacity as director of the Fitzwilliam from 1893 to 1908. And almost any object on display would have made a perfect prop for one of his tales, because the subject is ancient Egyptian coffins.

Generally, the main character in a story by James is a retiring gentleman scholar who comes across a venerable item which then brings upon him some diabolic haunting or curse. He did not actually write a narrative beginning with a curator who receives an ornately decorated 3,000-year-old casket from a burial site in Middle Egypt. But in real life, James did negotiate the Fitzwilliam's acquisition of several fabulous items on show in Death on the Nile .

Among these are the cedarwood box, from around 1,900 bc, which once contained the mummy of a woman named Nakht, described as 'lady of the house'. It is, as is sometimes the case with Egyptian antiquities, weirdly well-preserved. The timber -- an expensive, imported item which seems to have been recycled -- is almost completely intact. On one side the paintwork has been damaged by water, but elsewhere the hieroglyphic inscriptions and depictions of palace façades are fresh and almost jaunty.

It is true, as a text in the exhibition argues, that the ancient Egyptian obsession with death was in fact a preoccupation with life -- and how to prolong it in the afterlife. That is why the tomb of a man called Khety from 2010-1950 bc contained miniature sculptures of workers baking, butchering a cow, filling a granary and sailing boats on which Khety could travel on the river. Inscriptions on his coffin (also acquired by James) ask the gods Osiris and Anubis to provide offerings for him to use. Evidently, the plan was for Khety to have a comfortable time in the hereafter.

Nonetheless, there is something eerie about Egyptian grave goods. Partly, this is to do with their preservation. Our sense of age is connected to normal rates of decay, so we are not used to seeing wooden and cloth objects, thousands of years old, that look only slightly battered. The other thing that's a little uncanny is that all these carvings, pictures and painted inscriptions were not intended to be seen by living eyes at all, but by those of the gods and the dead. It is quite easy to imagine James penning a disturbing narrative -- his are the most haunting of ghost stories -- entitled 'The Coffin of Nakht'. …

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