Past Exhibitions

Egypt: Magic and the Afterlife

Egypt:  Magic and the Afterlife examines Egyptian beliefs about life after death. The ancient Egyptians had well-developed ideas about what happened after they died, and they went to considerable effort to prepare the dead for the afterlife.  Magic played a major role in their preparations.

If a dead person belonged to a family with sufficient wealth, his or her body was preserved through a process called mummification.  The mummified body was then placed inside one or more decorated cases or coffins.  Amulets and sometimes written charms were included with the body to provide magical assistance during the deceased’s passage through the underworld.  Thus equipped, the body was interred.  The grave itself could be anything from a simple hole in the ground to an elaborately decorated tomb.  

Anchoring Ancient Egypt:  Magic and the Afterlife are the Museum’s popular mummy coffins and cases, which date to the 22nd Dynasty (945-712 BCE).  These colorfully painted pieces, representing a high point in the history of Egyptian coffin decoration, have recently been conserved and have been remounted in new humidity-controlled display cases.

Also on view are several of the Museum’s small collection of funerary stelae, including a false door from the late Old Kingdom (late 3rd mill. BCE), an excellent example of a tomb stela of the First Intermediate Period (2134-2040 BCE) and a finely carved offering table dating to the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 BCE).

The chief god of the dead, Osiris, is represented by an elegant bronze figurine with blue glass and white stone inlays (Ptolemaic Period, 304-30 BCE).  Smaller artifacts in the new exhibit include the brightly colored funerary figurines and amulets that were buried with the deceased in order to accompany them on their arduous journey into the afterlife.

Nuzi and the Hurrians: Fragments from a Forgotten Past

By about 2400 BCE, Hurrians - people who spoke the Hurrian language - had expanded southward from the highlands of Anatolia. They infiltrated and occupied a broad arc of fertile farmland stretching from the headwaters of the Habur River to the foothills of the Zagros Mountains.

Sites such as Nuzi (modern Yorghan Tepe), Alalakh and Tell Brak have provided most of our information on the history and archaeology of Mittani and the Hurrians in the second millennium BCE. Washshukkanni, the capital of Mittani, has not yet been positively identified.

Hurrians established themselves as rulers of small kingdoms in northern Mesopotamia and Syria. They have been identified at ancient Urkesh (Tell Mozan) and other northern sites. Along with sporadic mentions of Hurrians in Sumerian and Akkadian documents, the finds from these sites help us outline the history of the early Hurrians.

From about 1500 BCE the Hurrian kingdom of Mittani, centered around the headwaters of the Habur River, was the dominant power among the small states of northern Mesopotamia and Syria. Mittani emerged as a world power and the equal of Egypt and Babylonia.

Harvard University funded excavations at Nuzi under Richard Starr in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and many of his discoveries from the site are on view in "Nuzi and the Hurrians: Fragments of a Forgotten Past" at the Harvard Semitic Museum. The Nuzi artifacts are a hugely valuable source of historical information, as they represent a fairly unbiased corpus of documentation surrounding the facts of daily life in the ancient world.