November 18, 2017

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Embalming Is an Act of Love: Preserving the Dead with Tamara Bower | Up Close

1606-UpClose-Bower-MummyMakersofEgyptBower, an archeological illustrator, beautifully details the sacred and complex process of embalming in her latest picture book, The Mummy Makers of Egypt (Triangle Square, Mar. 2016). Readers follow the mummification process of real-life mummy Yuya, through the eyes of a young boy, Ipy, son of the royal embalmer.

What inspired you to tell this tale from the perspective of the embalmers?

The embalmers themselves never wrote down their secret methods. We know about mummification from accounts by later Greek visitors—Herodotus and Diodorus—and from examining the mummies themselves. I also wanted to include the perspective of a child [Ipy] learning his family’s trade.

Early on in the book, you detail the journey that a deceased person’s soul was believed to take. I was struck by the line “I have not caused anyone to weep.” I find that tenderness is something that is not often highlighted in works on ancient peoples. With your work, do you set out to deepen our understanding of the ancient Egyptians?

I make a book that I myself would love to have. I see the paintings in my mind; I think of the stories and ideas that I would want to know more about.

Ancient Egyptians had a moral sense and believed that life after death was dependent upon moral actions during life. They believed that after death, the soul would be judged by a tribunal of gods, by having his or her heart weighed against the feather of truth. The deceased also had to recite a long list of the crimes they did not commit (a much longer list than I included in my book). Having passed this test, [the deceased were welcomed by] Osiris into the afterlife. The idea of the deceased being judged for his or her moral behavior, and rewarded or punished, is shared by many religions.

Photo by Robert Herman

Photo by Robert Herman

You are credited with reviving the 19th-century practice of creating watercolor facsimile copies of ancient wall paintings and painted relief sculptures. Can you expand on your process?

The watercolor facsimiles I make are for archaeological excavations as part of their documentation. Pencil drawings are used in the field and, later, made into an inked version—though the pencil drawing is kept as part of the excavation records.

How can students develop their own illustrations?

Watercolor is a difficult medium that takes a lot of skill and patience. Students should learn to draw before approaching watercolor. I suggest they go to museums and make pencil sketches. They will learn a great deal by looking carefully and striving to make an accurate copy. You notice things about an object when you are drawing it that you would not notice just glancing at it. Colored pencils can be also added.

How has technology impacted the way you work in the field? Is there any advancement you find particularly useful?

When I first started, we all worked by hand, using technical pens such as Rotring Rapidograph. I later had to retrain to use computer graphics programs like Adobe Illustrator. Using these programs, I can make duplicates, change the size, and make corrections much more easily.

I do love to work by hand, though. I am able to do this in my children’s books. The illustrations are all hand-painted in gouache and watercolor.

You have been an archaeological illustrator for 24 years. Are there ways we can better encourage young inspiring archaeologists or artists?

I myself did not get a degree in Egyptology. For me, it was a matter of luck, hard work, and determination. However, I would recommend that young people who want to become archaeological illustrators get a degree in archaeology or Egyptology (that would make it a little bit easier). It can be a difficult field to find work in; it is definitely for those who have a strong passion.

This article was published in School Library Journal's June 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple

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