Egyptian treasures show common man’s hopes for afterlife

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February 15th, 2012

Omaha, NE – The Joslyn Art Museum’s latest exhibit showcases Egyptian life and culture: not in the gold sarcophagi of princes, but in the clay coffins of the common man.

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The Egyptian Treasures exhibit includes tiny objects such as fine jewelry. (Photo courtesy Joslyn)

“Egypt seems to have the strongest hold on our imaginations,” said Toby Jurovics, the Curator of American Western Art at the Joslyn. He showed me around the museum’s latest exhibition, To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum.

“There’s something about the history of Egypt and its monuments, and I think in part the sort of mysteriousness of its cultural practices that really holds an even stronger fascination for us,” Jurovics said.

The Egyptian Treasures exhibit includes a broad collection of objects that ancient Egyptians used to prepare themselves for the afterlife: a central focus of Egyptian life and culture.

Egyptians carved "shabties" to accompany them in the grave. These symbolized servants, who would help them live comfortably in the afterlife. (Photo courtesy Joslyn)

From two intricately-painted, dramatic limestone sarcophagi, the collection spans to tiny pieces of jewelry – some made of gold and others made of faience. Faience looks like turquoise, but it’s a cheap material made of Egyptian sand. Jurovics said items like those in the collection show the story of ordinary Egyptian – and the tricks they employed to make their tombs more attractive to the Gods.

Pointing out a terra cotta jug painted to look like granite, Jurovics said Egyptians who couldn’t afford the real thing would often paint their coffins, or objects stowed inside, to look like more expensive metals. “It really does, I think, humanize this very distant culture,” he said.

The collection also includes some intriguing pieces: like two mummified dogs, with teeth intact, that were presented as offerings to the gods. And one of Jurovics’ favorites: the mummy of Demetrios, which includes actual human remains and a portrait of the man inside.

“The portrait of the deceased is so lifelike,” Jurovics said. “It’s really very haunting to be able to look at this mummy, and see this face, and be able to make this connection to the human being that it holds.”

The mummy of Demetrios was painstakingly preserved, and his tomb still contains actual human remains. CT scans show an intact skull, spine and vertebrae. (Video provided by Brooklyn Museum)

To Live Forever will continue at the Joslyn Art Museum through June 3rd. The museum will host several events during the exhibit, including a lecture by a mummy expert: Dr. Bob Brier is described as the first man to mummify a human cadaver in the ancient Egyptian style in 2,000 years. He’ll be speaking at the museum in May. Ballet Nebraska will also perform a ballet inspired by the exhibit and the story of famed Egyptian ruler Cleopatra. That performance takes place March 30th and 31st.

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