Archaeologists have recovered the remnants of an ancient “Book of Two Ways” from a sarcophagus

In ancient Egypt, death wasn’t merciful enough to end one’s troubles. The afterlife was fraught with peril, too, and the dead had to contend with something of a spiritual obstacle course to reach Rostau, the glorious realm of Osiris, god of death.

At least two paths to Rostau existed: one by land, another by sea. Both were arduous enough to require a guidebook, the aptly named Book of Two Ways. This intricate map of the ancient Egyptian underworld may be the first illustrated “book” in history. And archaeologists have now unearthed a 4,000-year-old-copy—possibly the oldest version ever found, reports Franz Lidz for the New York Times.

The find, described in a recent paper in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, nudges the history of ancient literature backward in time, underscoring the dedication and sophistication with which these individuals tackled the enigma of their own mortality.

“The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with life in all its forms,” says Rita Lucarelli, an Egyptology curator at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with Lidz. “Death for them was a new life."

The floor of one of the coffins of Gua, a physician of the governor Djehutyhotep
The floor of one of the coffins of Gua, a physician of the governor Djehutyhotep © Werner Forman/Universal Images Group via Getty Images - The paintings, dated to 1795 B.C., show the “two ways”—land and sea—that the dead could use to navigate the afterlife. An even older “Book of Two Ways” has now been unearthed.

 Willems, Harco. “A Fragment of an Early Book of Two Ways on the Coffin of Ankh from Dayr Al-Barshā (B4B).” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 104, no. 2 (December 2018): 145–60. doi:10.1177/0307513319856848

Remains of the early Middle Kingdom coffin of a lady called Ankh (B4B) contain parts of the earliest now known version of the Book of Two Ways. The fragment published here retains parts of CT spells 1128 and 1130. The article discusses the problems involved in the publication of this particular source, and in reading the incised hieratic signs of this source. Also, the article places the version of source B4B within the context of the editorial development of the Book of Two Ways.

Keywords AnkhBook of Two Wayscoffin B4BCoffin TextsDayr al-Barshā