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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.