As I was leaving the British Museum I saw their poster for the exhibition I’d just seen. It asked bluntly: “What happens after death.” I laughed, thinking that would hardly attract the visitors! But it will, of course. Any show on ancient Egypt is bound to be a crowd-puller, especially one that promises a journey into the perilous underworld and a peek at the magic spells contained within the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Journey through the Afterlife: the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead takes us through dim corridors and tomb-like recesses, twisting and turning our way around the Reading Room, a room that has become until March 6 the Egyptian underworld. Room by room, we follow the stages of passage to the afterlife, from day of burial and mummification, to judgment, to how to avoid the journey’s many pitfalls, finally to the ‘Field of Reeds’, the perfect hereafter. En route we encounter ibis- or falcon- or jackal-headed gods, watchful baboons, and terrifying crocodile-headed, lion and hippo-bodied ‘Devourers’ awaiting the hearts of the unworthy. Above all, we learn of the hopes and fears of the deceased from the spells they chose to guide them safely to eternal life.

This is a dazzling exhibition. Not so much for the bling — this is no Tutankhamun display of wealth, though there are a few gilded items including the beautiful mummy mask that greets you on arrival — but more for the opportunity it offers to see the pick of one of the richest collections in the world of Book of the Dead manuscripts on papyrus.

Additionally, there are loans from European and US collections and various mummies, painted coffins, amulets and such like that help explain the complex beliefs of the ancient Egyptians about life after death. Papyrus manuscripts rarely exhibited are unrolled and imaginatively displayed, aided by nifty visual technology.

The ‘Book’ was not a single text but a selection of spells and incantations unique to the individual, chosen from around 200. They were in use for more than 1500 years between c.1600 BC and 100AD, and were costly.

Originally, only pharaohs had them in their tombs, but in time high-ranking people joined in. They ordered bespoke versions. The less well-off had to make do with ready-mades, where scribes left gaps on the manuscript for names of the deceased to be added. Save time for the highlights of the last two rooms. Hunefer’s Book of the Dead shows the challenges of the afterlife in glorious colour: from the Theban official and wife standing at the left of the scroll, he with arm pendants and she with papyrus frond and musical instrument, to the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ and ‘Weighing of the Heart’ rituals.

The icing on the cake is the Greenfield Papyrus. This 37-metre Book of the Dead stretches halfway round the Reading Room. It’s in hieratic script, so I guess most of us will content ourselves with the line drawings. They are stunning. The back-to-back lions, for instance, with rising sun between them; spells for escaping from the nets of underworld gods; and an unusual image of the Creation with the figure of the sky goddess Nut arching herself (Yoga style?) over the reclining god of the earth. Other treats include a satirical cartoon-like strip, 3,000 years old, of a lion and a gazelle sitting on stools playing the board game ‘senet’.

Also, other animal details: snakes everywhere, sinuous, stylised, some with feet; and insects, not only scarabs, the deep carving of a winged insect, for instance, head, thorax, abdomen perfectly plain. This feast of imagery and spells has a wide appeal. The Ancient Egyptians are covered in Key Stage 2 at schools, so they have made the exhibition particularly relevant for this age group, offering exclusive opening times for school visits, for example, and numerous resources for families and schoolchildren. So expect high noise levels at times! Most of all expect to be spellbound. n For the programme, and families and schools information, see: