The sarcophagus in front of Egyptologist Harco Willems and his team had already been looted. Any remaining contents were now long lost to fungi. However, they decide to take one last look at the nearly destroyed coffin. When they do, they find something spectacular – a piece of Ancient Egyptian text older than anything else of its kind that had ever been uncovered before.
The coffin that Willems cracked open was laid to rest in a necropolis on the east bank of the Nile. The cliff-side tomb once served as an exclusive burial site for governors during the Middle Kingdom period, which stretched from 2055 to 1650 BC. It was surrounded by stunning, ornate tombs where former leaders laid to rest.
However, the coffin itself wasn’t tucked away in one of these tombs. Instead, Willems found it in a burial shaft, a pocket of the necropolis that hadn’t been visited in quite some time. And, as he examined its leftover relics, he realized that a pair of rotting cedar panels had long been overlooked for a multitude of reasons.
Dr. Harco Willems had his interest in ancient Egypt piqued when he was just 12 years old. Growing up in the Netherlands, he read a book called The World of The Pharaohs, which described the era through the eyes of a modern-day child. It was clearly effective as, in time, Willems graduated with a degree in Egyptology.
Studying for his Ph.D. at the University of Groningen, Willems focused on his study of coffins from the Middle Kingdom era. He put that expertise to good use. In 2001, he became the director of an archaeological dig at Deir el-Bersha, a village situated between Luxor and Cairo.
By the time Willems took over the helm at Deir el-Bersha, it had been 86 years since the site had been excavated. Indeed, the last time anyone explored the east Nile necropolis was in 1915, when American Egyptologist George Reisner discovered the tombs. Reisner had traveled to and explored the area as part of a joint effort from Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Reisner’s initial survey of the place proved somewhat successful. He uncovered the tomb of an ancient provincial governor called Djehutynakht, but he quickly realized he wasn’t the first to enter the vault. Although he found that much of the burial site’s contents had already been looted, he did walk away with a few treasures.
In Djehutynakht’s tomb, Reisner found stunning wooden models, which depicted daily life in that region of ancient Egypt. The Harvard-backed explorer also found the intricately painted coffins that contained the remains of the provincial governor and his wife. All of those findings ended up back in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, where they remain on display.
Further excavations of Deir el-Bersha presented Reisner with a mummified head, as well as an ancient torso without limbs. He also discovered a chapel flanked by palm columns, an interior hall and a chamber, too. But when the Egyptologist moved on to Tomb 17K85/1B, his good luck deserted him.
Rather than uncovering further riches in this burial shaft, Reisner found the space strewn with discarded cigarette butts and old newspapers. He quickly came to the conclusion that someone had already looted and ransacked the place. So, the Egyptologist gave up on searching the tomb after his initial examination.
Although Reisner didn’t find anything here, he apparently did a good job of documenting the location and contents of Tomb 17K85/1B. Willems relied on the Deir el-Bersha discoverer’s diary to guide him to the burial shaft nearly 90 years later. Once the Dutchman and his team found the passage, they made their way inside.
As you can imagine, delving into an ancient burial site isn’t a comfortable experience. Instead, Willems and his fellow excavators entered the shaft to find an environment that was “suitably gloomy, dank and eerie,” according to a 2019 piece by the The New York Times. And that description doesn’t even mention the coffins.
The burial shaft contained bits and pieces of coffin planks made from cedar. The New York Times described the earthy chunks as “spread about as if deposited by a flash flood.” Nevertheless, Willems and his team had found 4,000-year-old scraps of wood. They duly gathered up the age-old shards for conservation purposes.
However, there was still more to see within Tomb 17K85/1B. Willems and the team delved 20 feet underground to find the coffin. Most others would have ignored what they found at that point. Indeed, much of the sarcophagus’ contents had long disappeared in the hands of looters. What remained was riddled with fungi.
Luckily, though, Willems took a closer look at two cedar panels which, at first, seemed to be rotting and relatively worthless. As he examined them, he realized that they had something to say – quite literally. The ancient Egyptians had used the planks to send a message with images and hieroglyphic characters.
Etchings on coffins were commonplace in ancient Egyptian society, especially during the Middle Kingdom era. During that time, such eternal messages appeared on the inside of coffins, and for good reasons. Willems explained to the New York Times that the living hoped their words would “situate the deceased in the world of the gods.”
On the planks Willems discovered, the ancient Egyptians had crafted all of the imagery using paint. To write text, though, they relied on simpler black or red ink, which they then outlined using a knife. The latter step proved vital in the Egyptologist’s re-reading of the message, as most of the ink had faded by the time he found it.
Luckily, Willems had technology on his side. Even though his discovery was merely scratches on a chunk of rotting cedar, he could still figure out what the message said. He used software called DStretch, originally designed to enhance rock art. With this, he could better discern the engravings from millennia ago.
At first, Willems assumed that the etchings had been carved for provincial governor Djehutynakht, whose tomb Reisen had uncovered decades before. However, as he pored over the planks, he realized that they had once been part of a woman’s coffin. Her name was Ankh, likely the wife or relative of a high-ranking government official.
However, the planks had much more to say than just the name of the deceased. Once Willems deciphered the text, he realized that he had found a copy of the Book of Two Ways. In an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, especially during the Middle Kingdom, it wasn’t uncommon to find such a story etched inside.
Willems explained, “These ‘Coffin Texts’ tend to situate the deceased in the world of the gods. Sometimes, they are combined with drawings. At Deir el-Bersha, one frequently encounters Book[s] of Two Ways.” And yet, the one that Willems uncovered was rather different to all the others.
The story contained within the Book of Two Ways is essentially a guide to the underworld. The ancient Egyptians believed that they wouldn’t instantly find themselves in a heavenly afterlife. Instead, they would face a slew of obstacles in order to reach the god of death, Osiris, and his haven, the realm of Rostau.
The book was an extension of the ancient Egyptians’ concept of the circle of life. As the University of California, Berkeley’s Egyptology curator, Rita Lucarelli, explained, “[They] were obsessed with life in all its forms. Death for them was a new life.” And, according to the Book of Two Ways, plenty of perils awaited them on the other side.
In order to reach the realm of Rostau, the deceased would have to pass through everything from fire to demons to the guards meant to protect Osiris’s body for future rebirth. Heaven awaited those who could recite spells of resurrection and address the doorkeepers by their names. That’s a lot to study before passing away – and that’s where the Book of Two Ways came in.
The Book of Two Ways highlighted the two paths to Rostau – one by land, one by sea. No matter in which direction the deceased traveled, the painted text within their coffins told them how to get there. As such, it may well be the first illustrated book in history.
Finding such an ancient remnant is always remarkable for archaeologists. But Willems’s find at Deir el-Bersha wasn’t just any copy of the Book of Two Ways. Instead, the Egyptologist found other inscriptions that indicated the age of his find – and it was spectacular, to say the least.
Alongside the sarcophagus fragments, Willems found other artifacts within the grave that came from the same era as ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Mentuhotep II. He reigned for 51 years, during which time he reunited Egypt and brought the First Intermediate Period to an end. At that point, the Middle Kingdom period began.
Mentuhotep ruled over Egypt from 2061 to 2010 BC – a remarkable 51 years. Since Willems had artifacts from the Pharaoh’s reign, he could date the copy of the Book of Two Ways he found. And, with that information, he could confirm that he had found the oldest surviving copy of the ancient text.
Two other versions of the Book of Ways exist. However, if the Mentuhotep II-era remnants provide a correct date for the planks Willems found, his are about 40 years older than those copies. That wasn’t the only fascinating aspect of his find, though, according to the Egyptologist.
As previously mentioned, Willems found the name of provincial governor Djehutynakht inscribed in the coffin. This discovery led him to believe that he had found the sarcophagus that once contained his body. However, further investigation revealed that the coffin’s actual tenant was Ankh, a woman.
Although Ankh was laid to rest in the inscribed coffin, the Book of Ways did not refer to her with the proper pronouns. Willems said, “To me, what’s funny is the idea that how you survive in the netherworld is expressed in male terms.” Of course, this was due to ancient Egyptian culture and the gender roles that came with it.
In both life and death, the ancient Egyptians thought that only men could achieve the ultimate goals of regeneration and creation. Women had a very different role, according to University of California, Los Angeles professor of Egyptian art, Kara Cooney. She explained, “Goddesses were believed to be protective vessels.”
So, to give women a chance of making it to Rostau in the afterlife, they had to take on a more masculine mindset – and pronoun. The engraving would help them with that, according to Cooney. She said, “The pronoun ‘he’ was essential even for female deceased people because they needed to be like Osiris.”
Even so, the Book of Ways did come with some customization. It all depended on the deceased’s social or financial standing in life. The more power they had, the longer their book would be. On top of that, the wealthy could spring for a more lavishly designed guide, too.
The remaining planks from Ankh’s coffin give a glimpse into her intended journey to Osiris and Rostau. Willems described, “This one begins with a text encircled by a red line designated as ‘ring of fire.’ The text is about the sun god passing this protective fiery ring to reach Osiris.”
Of course, the ring of fire wouldn’t be the only obstacle ahead of Ankh. Her Book of Two Ways warned of a series of gates through which she would have to pass. There were also a pair of lines that looped around, each one a way into the afterlife, as the title of the text suggests.
Ankh’s Book of Two Ways warned her that either road would lead her past dark spirits, but it also prepared her to take them on. The coffin planks included the incantations necessary to defeat the underworld beings from her path. The final spell etched into her sarcophagus revealed what Ankh’s fate would be in the afterlife.
Spell 1130, as it is written in Ankh’s coffin, would permanently attach her spirit to Ra, the sun god who the ancient Egyptians considered to be their creator. So, if the deceased made it to the end of her chosen path and recited her final incantation properly, she would become a sun god, too.
Of course, Willems couldn’t decipher every single message included in Ankh’s Book of Two Ways. Both her, and other ancient copies, include symbols that even Egyptologists cannot translate. Some believe that the afterlife interpretation is incorrect altogether. The ancient tome may actually feature images that represent life and spells meant to revive gods or other humans.
No matter what, Ankh’s Book of Two Ways now stands as the oldest copy of the text that excavators have found – at least, so far. According to New Scientist in October 2019, Egyptologist Wael Sherbiny had yet to publish findings regarding his own copy of the book, which appeared on an ancient leather scroll. Our journey into the past continues.