Ancient Egyptians expected to be very busy in the afterlife. Thousands of years ago they painted big beautiful eyes on the outside of their coffins so that they could see what was going on in the world. Some of the nobility around the upper Egyptian city of Asyut even had detailed tables of star movements drawn on the inside of their coffins. The depictions look like timetables or spreadsheets of when various stars first appear (or disappear) over the horizon at different times of the year—only a lot more beautiful.

Scholars have long believed that the star charts represented a very early type of clock, for telling time at night, which might be important for certain religious rituals. But Sarah Symons of McMaster University in Ontario thinks it more likely that the tables represent a kind of map for the dead to properly navigate the sky, where they would live forevermore as stars. Her conclusions are based on years of research into ancient Egyptian beliefs, extensive surveys of the 27 known star tables or fragments of tables in the world and, using planetarium software, the ability to easily recreate the nighttime sky as it appeared more than 4000-odd years ago along the Nile. Symons and co-author Elizabeth Tasker of Hokkaido University in Japan describe the work in the October issue of Scientific American.

The basic layout of the star charts has, of course, been known for decades, as Symons and Tasker write in "Stars of the Dead." A complete table "is divided into quarters by a horizontal and a vertical strip. The horizontal strip contains a line from a religious text making an offering to a number of Egyptian gods, and the vertical strip pictures four images of the gods themselves. . ."

Running along the top of the table is the ancient Egyptian civil calendar. Each month contained three 10-day weeks with 12 months of 30 days marking 360 days. The five odd days or "half week" at the end of the year were tacked on in their own special column at the end of the table.

Every column of star names (written in hieroglyphs) consists of 12 rows, with each cell indicating the rising (or possibly setting) of a particular star over the horizon.

But the true magic of these tables really comes alive when you can examine in detail.

In concert with the publication of Symons’ and Tasker's in-depth narrative, and by special permission of the University of Tubingen Museum in Germany, the following slide show introduces you to one of the best preserved star tables of ancient Egypt—from the tomb of Idy of Asyut.