British Museum blog

Opening up the Shroud

Deborah Phipps, conservator, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service (NMAS)

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

It was with excitement and a hint of trepidation that we approached the unfolding of the shroud… what would we find, and how difficult would it be?

British Museum and NMAS conservators start to unfold the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

British Museum and NMAS conservators start to unfold the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

On the first day we had the combined team of British Museum conservators Monique Pullan and Nicole Rode, student intern Melanie Plottu and NMAS conservators Jonathan Clark, Man-Yee Liu and myself present. We would need several pairs of careful hands to support the fragile textile as it revealed its secrets.

Earlier in the process we had discussed the ethics of opening the shroud as we did not want to remove any important evidence during the process of unfolding. We were happy to go ahead as the anomalous cotton thread described in the previous post assured us that the shroud had indeed been opened since its removal from the tomb.

We also had a light-hearted competition – how big would the unfolded shroud be? At 1250 by 2300mm Monique Pullan was the closest, but of course British Museum staff have the advantage over the Norwich conservators here, having worked on similar objects before.

The conservators work in a tent in order to raise the relative humidity and prevent brittle fibres from splitting. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

The conservators work in a tent in order to raise the relative humidity and prevent brittle fibres from splitting. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

In the previous week, the British Museum conservators had built a large tent out of plastic tubes and sheeting. We placed the shroud inside and, using two ultrasonic humidifiers, raised the relative humidity to about 65% to relax the potentially brittle fibres of the shroud before we started to flex them. This would hopefully minimize any stress and possible damage caused during the process.

Although mostly complete, the top layer was deceptive – numerous loose and broken threads and holes meant there were many tangled areas and progress was slow as these were unravelled. The shroud was allowed to relax and adjust after each movement and we were pleased to find that it was still fairly soft and flexible, albeit very fragile.

The conservators unfold one section of the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

The conservators unfold one section of the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

After the shroud was partially unrolled, we could see it had been folded several times length ways – but it needed time to relax and settle before we continued. A day of sitting in the humidity tent was followed by unfolding the rest carefully and slowly.

The conservators unroll sections of the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

The conservators unroll sections of the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

After three days of careful work the shroud finally revealed itself to us. It was a roughly square fragment, approx. 140 by 160cm, completely covered with columns of black and red hieroglyphs.

The more we looked the more we saw, and it was exciting to pick out scarab beetles and birds, and even a cartouche! It looked indeed like a Book of the Dead shroud, but we would have to wait for curatorial expertise to decipher the text and tell us more.

The next period of treatment was the localised humidification of the tangled areas and slow realignment of the grain of the fabric to flatten out the shroud and make the text easier to read. We used small acrylic weights to help ease out the creases.

It was pleasing to see that Monique’s experience and the team’s delicate work had paid off – the small fragments that had been hanging from the shroud by mere single threads were still attached and unbroken.

Detail of one of the tangled areas of the shroud, with the anomalous cotton thread. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Detail of one of the tangled areas of the shroud, with the anomalous cotton thread. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

As the shroud became less creased, we were able to pick out clues other than the text that will contribute to our understanding of the its context. The torn and misaligned edges of the shroud appear somewhat darker than intact areas, suggesting they may be stained with body fluids, a common feature seen on burial shrouds. These could be the edges of areas that had more direct contact with the body, and therefore degraded much more quickly.

Also, one edge is straight and almost neat – it appears to have been cut or ripped along a weft thread. Was this the edge of the shroud where it was taken off the loom, or the tear of an unscrupulous dealer dividing it up to increase sales?

Unfortunately, the staff from Norwich had to return home while the others continued with the process. But we will all meet again after the curators from the British Museum and Norwich Castle have examined the shroud and text to consider the next stage of the treatment.

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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

After-excavation care at Amara West

Elisabeth Pamberg, archaeological illustrator/conservator

Salt crystals on the rim of beer jar C8008

I visited the stores where we keep the objects excavated from the site, to check they were in good condition. Objects from a site like this one often contain salts that could damage them, so I wasn’t surprised to observe that several objects had salt crystals on them, particularly the pottery and some stone sculpture.

The artefacts retrieved at Amara West are subject to environmental conditions which include high humidity and salinity, the result of the site’s proximity to the Nile. Ceramic and stone buried in soil absorb the salts present in the deposits.

Beer jar C8007 after desalination this week

Following my advice, and discussions with Marie Millet and Neal Spencer, two beer jars from grave 201 were chosen for treatment, as they were affected by salt, with a thick visible layer of white concretions.

The salts are harmful and are not only an aesthetic issue; they obscure the object’s surface and can lead to surface exfoliation – the surface lifting off. Eventually, the crystallisation of salts can lead to disintegration.

The most efficient way to extract salt consists of soaking the objects in water over a long period of time, though extra steps need to be taken with fragile objects, or those bearing paint.

The removal of soluble salts can be a very lengthy procedure. In this case, the jars were bathed repeatedly in plenty of warm water for a period of eight days with the water being changed every day.

Unfortunately, no distilled or deionised water and conductivity meter (to measure the decreasing level of salt) is available here. Nonetheless, soluble salts appear to have completely disappeared from the jars, ensuring their long-term preservation.

Looking to future seasons, we might consider testing salt levels in the local river water, which is used for washing all pottery prior to study, recording and storage.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , , ,

Out in the cold

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Out in the fields

When an email came round from Allison Marccucci at Wessex Archaeology calling for volunteers to go field walking at the Chiseldon cauldrons find spot my colleague Jamie Hood and I volunteered enthusiastically.

Jamie had never been to the site before and knew it only from photographs and my hazy recollections. It was important for him to put the cauldrons into the context of the surrounding landscape, and we would both represent the British Museum and tell everyone what had been happening since 2005.

Clothed in waterproofs, wellington boots and several jumpers we walked out across muddy fields to the find spot. Winter is not the nicest time to be out on an exposed ridge in the Wiltshire countryside, but field walking has to be done at this time of year – after ploughing and before the crop growth obscures the ground.

As we approached I could see a cluster of people standing over the find spot. The original find had produced a lot of interest in the local area and in total 10 people had volunteered to field walk including Peter Hyams, the finder; John Winterburn, who did an initial excavation; and members of the local history society.

A grid of five metre squares was set out over the field and we walked across each square in pairs picking up fragments of pottery, worked stone and metal. The finds were bagged and their location recorded by square.

Further study of the fragments by Wessex Archaeology and their spread throughout the field will give an indication of the periods of activity and also the extent of the archaeological area. When combined with geophysics results it should help to place the cauldrons in context.

Pausing in the rain, alongside the field

By this time it was bitterly cold and the rain had started driving across the field horizontally. Taking what shelter we could by the field boundary we ate a hasty lunch. Although unpleasant, the rain did have the advantage of washing the ground surface and making the potsherds more visible, but with darkness descending and the weather worsening we called it a day.

Despite the freezing rain it was great to be out in the field and talking to other people about the find. The importance of local knowledge to archaeology is vital, and often landowners and users know details of the local landscape that it would take archaeologists a long time to accumulate.

We have to remember that, although the objects have passed over to us in the British Museum to conserve and investigate, their importance is not only academic. The turnout for fieldwalking in less than ideal weather showed how important the cauldrons are to the people involved, something that can be easily forgotten when working back in the lab.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation

Going underground – unearthing more burials at Amara West

Dyan Semple, physical anthropologist, University of Alberta

Gone underground: the shaft of grave 234, with tarpaulin covering the eastern chamber

Along with Michaela and Carina, I’m working in cemetery C at Amara West, currently in the western chamber of Grave 201.

This tomb has a central shaft and two chambers to the east and the west. It had already been partially excavated in 2009, but this year we removed the alluvium from above the western chamber, to avoid the possibility of it falling in while we were excavating.

A lot of the bones had been crushed by earlier collapse, but five articulated burials were found at the rear of the space. As they lay one on top of the other, I had to be very careful to separate them – finding a place to stand was the first issue, and then I could remove the more recent burials at the front, after recording them.

Dyan cleaning skeletons in Grave 201

From the way the skeletons are arranged, it is possible to tell that some of the individuals had been tightly bound for burial. They were buried in an extended position, laid out with their hands beneath them and their feet crossed. In some cases, however, the binding was tight and thick, leading to bodies being placed face down, perhaps accidentally.

I didn’t find any traces of cloth, although some of the individuals had wood pieces associated with their remains, which may once have been a coffin or funerary bed.

In addition to wood fragments, three scarabs have been found in the grave – one individual had two faience scarabs associated with them, clutched in the left hand, and lying under the crushed skull.

One scarab bore the prenomen cartouche of Thutmosis III, a pharaoh of the mid-18th Dynasty, which is much earlier than the use of this cemetery for burials. However, objects like these were kept for long periods of time, and scarabs with this royal name were still being made centuries later.

Scarab (F9490) of glazed steatite, found in Grave 201

The final task in this grave is drawing a cross-section of the chambers and shafts, and I have already started work in the eastern chamber of Grave 234, which is a similarly constructed chamber tomb.

Though the bones are again crushed, there is a large amount of relatively intact wood along the back of the chamber, and ceramic jars and bowls are visible at the sides and centre. One burial seems to have been placed in the chamber after it had already partially collapsed. It appears that there are at least 10 individuals in the chamber, so the excavation of Grave 234 will likely occupy the remainder of the season for Carina and I.

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Dismantling the crown

Sarah Price and Xavier Duffy, Museum Assistants

Early in January we travelled to Bonn, the venue of the previous Afghanistan exhibition to assist with the de-installation and transport of the objects to London. In the British Museum we will be responsible for installing Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World and it has been months in the planning. Our trip to Bonn was the first time we would actually see the objects rather than in the photographs we’d been carefully studying. It was also our first opportunity to meet the eight Afghan couriers who accompany the exhibition and who we will be working with closely in London.

It was then with a sense of anticipation and nervous excitement that we arrived at the museum to start work. We were able to look around the exhibition before de-installation began and this was a valuable chance to see what the objects are actually like and how they can be displayed.

One object that surprised us was the gold crown from Tillya Tepe that features on the British Museum exhibition poster. It is a most beautiful, delicate piece and had been cleverly displayed in Bonn. We were puzzled by how this object might be packed for transport given its fragile nature. The answer came when the conservator started dismantling it.

The crown’s shape is given by the mount it sits on during display. The top five sections come loose and are detached from the headband which itself then lies flat. Each piece had a series of loops on the back which thread onto corresponding spikes on the mount. These six sections are held in place with pins in travel boxes to stop them from moving during their journey to London.

Once all the objects had been safely packed into their crates it was time to transport the cargo to London with us and the Afghan delegation always close at hand. After a long day travelling across Europe the crates would still have to be unloaded at the British Museum. However, the Heavy Object Handling team and members of the Middle East department were thankfully on hand to assist with this final part of the process. The crates were placed in a secure storage area where they will remain until the (much anticipated) time comes to open them up and remove the objects for display in London.

Meeting the Afghan couriers was a great pleasure and assisting them with the de-installation of the exhibition in Bonn will certainly ensure the smooth running of the installation at the British Museum.

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Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions, , , ,

New explorations on the south side at Amara West

Charly Vallance, archaeologist

Frustrating times – seeking the town wall in the first days

In my second season at Amara West – I spend the rest of the year as a field archaeologist in the UK – I have been excavating in the south-west portion of the town, an area never previously investigated, alongside Shadia Abdo Rabo, a curator at the Sudanese National Museum, also acting as our inspector from the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums.

The first stage of our work was to locate the south-west corner of the town’s enclosure wall. You might think a wall 3.5 metres wide and several metres high would be easy to find, especially with the help of magnetometry data.

The architecture of excavation – sandbags keeping sand out of the deep trench

But, after two days of hard digging, there was no sign of the wall corner; local workman Abdul Razig was becoming increasingly frustrated and threatened to move trenches!

On the fifth day, relief, as several areas of mudbrick were exposed and identified as belonging to the town walls. The walls have suffered badly from deep pits dug through them to extract clay for building material.

Inside the walls, two distinct rooms were discovered, each one of considerable size, filled with over a metre of disturbed sands and silts, making excavation rather heavy-going. Battles with inflowing sand from the surrounding desert have been a daily occurrence, and one which has made us all experts in sandbag logistics.

Paved court with stone doorways (D13.3.1) in course of excavation

The biggest discovery to date has been a mudbrick pavement in pristine condition laid across the surfaces of both rooms. This was a sign we were digging something pretty grand. The presence of two elaborate entrances flanked by large sandstone door jambs leading north from the paved areas emphasise that we are not in a modest domestic building.

The finer detail: cleaning a small pottery bowl found in the corner of room D13.3.2

The purpose of the rooms is currently unclear, though the pottery suggests it dates to the late New Kingdom.

Perhaps one space was an open courtyard, a communal area tucked away in the south-west corner of the town? Or was it a rather grand residence? Only with more digging will we find out more: from 7am tomorrow, armed with shovels, picks and trowels, we will be out there again, trying to seek evidence for these and other questions…

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, ,

Glimpses of diet through plant remains

Philippa Ryan, British Museum

Philippa sampling a 3,100 year old hearth in a large villa (E12.10) at Amara West

I’m in Sudan looking at ancient plant remains from Amara West to investigate past diet and the potential impact of climate change on how plants were used.

This type of evidence can also provide insight into social behaviour, such as differences in diet between richer and poorer households. Additionally, identifying certain types of plant remains, such as cereal processing detritus, can help to investigate the functions of certain rooms or outdoor areas in the town.

Tools of the trade: sieves for botanical samples

The excavators take sediment samples from archaeological contexts such as hearths, ovens, floors and storage bins for botanical analysis. Back at the dig-house, I process the bags of sediment they have collected to extract the charred and desiccated plant remains – using dry-sieving and flotation.

Philippa sorting through a sample after sieving, back in the work room

At the end of the dig season, these samples will then be taken back to the British Museum, with the permission of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, where I will identify the seeds and fruits in conjunction with Caroline Cartwright, who is also analysing the wood charcoal. Modern analytical equipment such as a Scanning Electron Microscopes can help with the identifications.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of tamarisk charcoal from Amara West (Caroline Cartwright)

In addition, I am taking further sediment samples back for processing in the laboratory to extract phytoliths (microscopic silicified plant cells) as another way of investigating the plant record.

On the Nile near Amara West, seeking modern plant material for reference collection

Whilst here, I have also been collecting plants to compare with the ancient plant materials. I have gathered grasses, reeds and branches of trees and shrubs from the riverbanks via boat (watching out for the large crocodiles!), a trip into the desert, and from the island of Ernetta where we are living.

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Stepping back in time… ancient footprint found in Amara West

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Foot impression in the clay surface of the Ramesside period (house E13.7)

The buildings, objects and even destruction episodes we come across every day during our excavations reflect a range of ancient human activities – but occasionally we happen on something more immediately touching.

As the workmen cleared rubble down towards the floor of the large room of a house we’re currently excavating, the shape of an adult foot appeared earlier this week.

This impression was made at least 3,100 years ago, when the clay surface was still wet.

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Getting to know you – a first glimpse at the shroud

Monique Pullan, British Museum

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery
The Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The shroud arrived in the Organics Conservation studios at the British Museum last week, and the project has now begun in earnest.

Accompanied by Jonathan Clark and Deborah Phipps, conservators from Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service (NMAS), and Faye Kalloniatis, research associate at Norwich Castle, the whole team was able to discuss first impressions – for some of us this was the first time we actually saw the textile. Jonathan and Deborah, together with Man Yee Liu, Head of Conservation at NMAS, will be joining us at key stages during the treatment.

The immediate reaction was one of surprise at how small the bundle is, at about 30 cm by 20 cm. But at the same time, we could see that there are many layers of fabric, and the fabric is quite fine– so potentially this could be quite large when opened.

British Museum and NMAS staff can’t wait to remove their coats before taking a first look. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

British Museum and NMAS staff can’t wait to remove their coats before taking a first look. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

So the question at the moment is – how big is it!?! And what shape is it? Not knowing makes planning difficult. We are now trying to arrange our work space and figure out how many tables we need, how big our support boards need to be, and so on. Make your bets now, as hopefully in a couple of weeks we’ll have opened it up to its full size!

It’s important to document the bundle as it is now, as this will be the last time it will be in this form. So we have to resist temptation to plunge in straight away and instead look for evidence to tell us if it has been opened up since discovery or not – if folded in antiquity we’ll need to consider if it’s more ethical to keep the bundle as it is.

Perhaps the Colman family looked at or even displayed the shroud at home or to their friends?

We can see one clue already – an anomalous pale cotton thread appears to be winding its way through to the inside of folds of the textile. This is clearly not an ancient Egyptian thread, not least because cotton wasn’t used then – probably a sign that it has been opened up since 1897.

The textile looks quite soft and flexible, but also appears very fragmentary, with some sections potentially joined to each other by a mere few threads. The newer looking thread is among the folds at the bottom. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The textile looks quite soft and flexible, but also appears very fragmentary, with some sections potentially joined to each other by a mere few threads. The newer looking thread is among the folds at the bottom. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

We also have to decide where to start unfolding it – there are no obvious edges from which to begin. We also don’t yet know how easy it will be to open? Although it looks soft and flexible, it could turn out to be quite brittle, particularly if there are any stained areas, with the fibres set in position. We can already see many holes and tears and, worryingly, fragments joined to each other by a mere few threads. When we lift the edges of folds to get a better look at the interior of the bundle, it really does look extremely fragmentary.

One exciting observation we’ve already made is that there are small hieroglyphs visible across the exposed textile. They are executed in black (most likely charcoal) and a red/brown (probably an ochre), the two colours most usually used by scribes at this time.

View of the reverse of the fabric, with the black ink of the hieroglyphs soaked through the linen. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

View of the reverse of the fabric, with the black ink of the hieroglyphs soaked through the linen. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Hopefully the curators will be able to decipher them, as not only will the hieroglyphic writing help us position any fragments, but of course the text will also help us understand what it is, why it was made and possibly even who it belonged to.

After we complete documenting the shroud as it is, we’ll finally start to unfold it. We’ll construct a large tent so we can work in a raised humidity environment and carefully start to lift each layer.

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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud, , , , ,

The tempo of the working day gathers pace…

Tom Lyons, archaeologist

Sunrise on the Nile at Ernetta, before boarding for the commute to Amara West

Being a new member of the British Museum’s excavation team at Amara West I’ve had to adapt to a different set of working conditions including a new set of colleagues, unfamiliar archaeology, wide-ranging temperatures and a spectacular dawn commute to work on a crowded boat down the Nile.

Having left behind my regular archaeological job in Britain where one typically investigates ditches, field systems and scant remains of housing I now find myself in one of the best preserved pharaonic towns (chiefly thanks to 3000 years of windblown sand).

Collapsed doorway from an earlier house, found beneath later architecture of house E13.3-N

As I’ve worked on other archaeological projects in the near east I have encountered buildings constructed in mud brick before. Many archaeological principles remain the same and now that the excavation is nearing a close I’m very familiar with the process of revealing buried architecture among collapsed buildings, and clay floor surfaces and recovering a variety of domestic objects such as large grinding stones, ovens and masses and masses of pottery.

My task is to supervise the excavation of a narrow house dating to about 1100 BC with local workmen removing the archaeological structures and deposits after I identify, draw and describe them. This task is complicated by the fact that several different phases of architecture still exist in the same space. Distinguishing them and reconstructing the original sequence of events is a crucial component of the work.

Beginning the excavation of house E13.3-N, four weeks ago

Now that the end of this season is approaching, the tempo of the working day gathers pace – while the number of as yet unanswered questions increases.

After excavating three rooms in the building almost completely, only the standing architecture and the very earliest floors (and deposits) remain, my attention now turns to the rest of the house next door, partly excavated in 2010 during last year’s season.

Tom Lyons cleaning a door blocking in front of the house

At present we think there are three architectural phases, although identifying each one and its true extent sometimes feels like informed speculation at best – or at worst a confusing set of circular relationships. A simple sketch plan of the archaeology as you interpret it can be much more constructive than unsatisfying discussions of the buildings under the glare of the midday Saharan sun.

In most cases the answers usually reveal themselves with further digging…

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , ,

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