British Museum blog

How did this Egyptian textile come to be in Norwich?

Faye Kalloniatis, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

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

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

    This is the second in a new 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 rather unprepossessing museum storage box with its crumpled heap of ancient linen, had sat in the Norwich Castle stores for nearly a century. I became aware of it in 1999 when the Castle Museum was being refurbished and John Taylor, from the British Museum, had come to help with the Egyptian material.

He, as an expert, was greatly taken by the shroud – even from the little he could see of it in its creased state. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when I started working on the Egyptian collection, that I remembered this small box and its contents.

The linen was clearly worth investigating – and the British Museum thought so too. So, happily, the project to conserve and study the shroud got underway.

As part of that I have had the fascinating task of piecing together the history relating to how the shroud came into the Norwich Castle collection. The story is an interesting and absorbing one.

The collector

Jeremiah James Colman (1830 – 1898) © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Jeremiah James Colman (1830 – 1898) © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Sir Jeremiah Colman bought the shroud while visiting Egypt (end 1896 – early 1897).

Today, Colman is mainly remembered because of his association with mustard. Colman’s Mustards were manufactured in Norwich by several generations of his family and this was the source of their wealth.

Aside from his business concerns, Jeremiah held many public offices. For nearly 25 years, he was a Liberal MP for Norwich and, at various times, was Sheriff and Mayor for the city. Held in great esteem, thousands lined the streets to pay their last respects at his funeral.

Alan Colman, Jeremiah's son who wintered in Egypt because of poor health. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Alan Colman, Jeremiah's son who wintered in Egypt because of poor health. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Travelling in Egypt

Jeremiah travelled to Egypt for family reasons. His son, Alan, was consumptive and it was recommended that he spend the winter in Egypt. He set off in November of 1896, accompanied by two of his sisters as well as his very own medical attendant, a Mr Worthington.

Landing in Egypt, the party headed for Cairo and stayed at the Mena House Hotel, overlooked by the pyramids. Jeremiah joined them a few weeks later.

Early in January 1897 the entire party headed for Luxor. They set sail in a dabaheah – a luxury boat commonly hired by well-to-do travellers. It was named Hathor, and it came with a local crew of about 20.

Their travels along the Nile are captured by photographs taken by one of Colman’s daughters, Florence. Clearly a keen photographer, her images show a fascination with the people and sights of Egypt.

The Colmans on donkeys, led by dragomen and others, viewing the sights. Jeremiah is the figure with the beard, riding on a donkey; two of his daughters are also with him. © The Ludham Archive

The Colmans on donkeys, led by dragomen and others, viewing the sights. Jeremiah is the figure with the beard, riding on a donkey; two of his daughters are also with him. © The Ludham Archive

As the Colmans journeyed up the river, Alan’s health steadily deteriorated and he died in early February 1897 – within days of reaching Luxor.

The Colmans, now in mourning and with no wish to remain in Egypt, turned back and headed for Cairo. Jeremiah wrote home saying:

    ‘[w]e are making our way slowly down the river towards Cairo. . . Even apart from the sad associations of our trip, Egypt is not a place which fascinates me. The utter squalor, misery and dirt of the great part of the population is to me most depressing.’
The luxury boat, Hathor, hired by the Colmans to journey up the Nile to Luxor. © The Ludham Archive

The luxury boat, Hathor, hired by the Colmans to journey up the Nile to Luxor. © The Ludham Archive

But his daughters were more enchanted by the country. One wrote that ‘the wonders of that wonderful land . . . came like a rush . . . the brilliant colouring of the place and people alike . . . the bazaars with their priceless treasures of silks. . . and – still more fascinating – the study of the life of the people themselves, all take one captive.’

Buying antiquities

Colman, although not taken with Egypt, nevertheless ended up buying some of its antiquities. This was not uncommon for travellers with money. Jeremiah bought over 250 artefacts.

He had the foresight to have his collection catalogued. The leather-bound catalogue, embossed with Egyptian floral motifs, was the work of the Egyptologist, Quibell (keeper at the Cairo Museum and one of the discoverers of the famous Narmer Palette.)

The catalogue is an invaluable record. Apart from its information about the artefacts, it occasionally names the dealers, such as Mohammed Mohassib, a well-known and well-regarded Luxor dealer, and that at a time when the great demand for antiquities meant not all were so scrupulous.

Another dealer, named Abdul Medjid, is described by Quibell as ‘a thorough scamp’.

The shroud

One of Colman’s purchases was a shroud – the very one which is the subject of this project. Quibell’s catalogue entry is sketchy:

    ‘Linen Sheet. Covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions from the ‘Book of the Dead’. The mummy in the coffin was often covered with a linen sheet of this kind.’

Frustratingly, there is neither mention of the shroud’s provenance or date nor the dealer from whom it was bought.

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

As the shroud is unfolded, so we hope its story will unfold – its provenance, its date and, if we’re lucky, even its owner.

When Sir Jeremiah died (in 1898), he left his collection to two of his daughters, Helen and Ethel. They, too, were good custodians, making it available to anyone who wished to study it – such as the local Egyptian Society of East Anglia, who viewed it at Carrow House, home of the Colmans.

Carrow House, in Norwich. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Carrow House, in Norwich. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

In 1921, the sisters wrote to Norwich City Council offering them their Egyptian antiquities. Pleased to have such a donation, the City gladly accepted and the collection was soon housed in Norwich Castle where it still remains.

As a tribute to their brother, the sisters had a boat built and named it Hathor, after the dabaheah in which Alan had sailed along the Nile.

Hathor, the Norfolk wherry, beautifully decorated with Egyptian motifs, is now a pleasure boat. In the summer it can still be seen cruising along the Norfolk Broads, packed with tourists enjoying a day out.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Alison M. says:

    Have had the pleasure of a sail on “Hathor” so was fascinated to learn of the connection.

    Like

  2. […] 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 […]

    Like

  3. Jeni says:

    This is really interesting, I live in Norwich and am fascinated by Ancient Egyptian, its amazing what you find thats on your doorstep!

    I do ahve a question – does anyone know, or know how I could find out, if any of the Colman were part of any Egyptian magick groups like the temple of Isis? Thanks

    Like

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