Back in 2012, archaeologists cracked open a burial shaft in the Middle Egyptian necropolis of Dayr al-Barsha. While much of its contents were looted or eaten away by fungi, they discovered that one of the coffins was inscribed with text from The Book of Two Ways, a mysterious illustrated “guidebook” to the underworld.
Reporting in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, a new study looking at this text suggests it could even be the earliest known copy of The Book of Two Ways.
The copy dates back to at least 4,000 years ago. The researchers know this because the tomb contains inscriptions that mention Djehutinakht I, an ancient nomarch from around the 21st to 20th century BCE. Although it was previously assumed the coffin once contained the body of Djehutinakht I, this study highlights that it actually belonged to an unknown elite woman called Ankh.
The tomb appears to have been repeatedly visited by impatient grave robbers who had scattered much of its contents across the chamber and removed some of the valuables. However, archaeologists did manage to recover two wooden panels, complete with some lines of hieroglyphic text. Remarkably, these fragments of text were found to be small sections of The Book of Two Ways.
A handful of versions of the book have been previously discovered by researchers, but this version is believed to be the earliest example found so far. Written for Middle Kingdom officials and their subordinates, copies of the archaic text have also been found on tomb walls, papyri, mummy masks, and in other coffins.
The text’s name refers to the two routes via which the dead can navigate to the underworld, seek protection from supernatural beings, and enter the realm of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld and judge of the dead.
The book is part of a large body of work known as The Coffin Texts, which includes 1,185 spells, incantations, and religious writings on the afterlife. The Coffin Texts are also one of the bodies of work that make up The Book of the Dead, the ancient Egyptian collection of mortuary texts made up of spells related to the afterlife.
However, not much is fully understood about the texts, specifically The Book of Two Ways, and its history. There is also the risk of making cultural assumptions about an ancient idea with our 21st-century mindset. For example, just because it looks a bit like a modern-day road map does not mean the ancient Egyptians necessarily used it as a map.
Regardless of its precise interpretation, The Book of Two Ways serves as another strong reminder of how death and the afterlife have long played an important role in the cultural imaginings of humans.