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.

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

Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Patricia Ewer says:

    Thank you for this amazing Blog post on the treatment of such an important artifact.

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  2. slamaina says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to post this blog.

    I was suprised to see that you weren’t wearing gloves to handle the shroud. I would think that the oils from skin could be damaging.

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  3. Hi slamaina,

    Yes, you make a good point – the oils, fats and other soiling on our hands, especially unwashed ones, can deposit on and stain a textile, which can eventually contribute to its deterioration. For that reason we often wear gloves when handling museum objects, such as during routine examination, transport, or study.

    We also wear gloves not only to protect the object from the person, but also to protect the person from the object – in the past, some museum collections were treated with pesticides to prevent and eradicate pest infestations. Although at the British Museum and other UK museums we usually no longer use pesticides on collections, they can be still present or offgas from objects. Some of the chemicals can still be absorbed through the skin by touching, or breathed in if the pesticide is volatile or attached to airborne dust particles. So another reason for wearing gloves and in the latter case also a protective mask.

    The downside is that what gloves block out is the subtle but vital information you get from touch. Touching a textile can tell us how strong the fibres are, how much flexing they can take, how much moisture vapour they have absorbed, etc. You can’t get this information in any other way, and when you’re unfolding such a fragile textile like this one I would argue there is a greater risk of damaging the textile if we wore gloves than not – especially with the fragments hanging on by a thread. So before we started opening the shroud, we determined with the NMAS conservators that the risk of the shroud having been treated with pesticides was very low, and as long as we washed our hands immediately before and after touching the textile we and the object would be safe.

    Hopefully this answers your question. More information about modern, non toxic methods to control pests in museum collections can be found here: http://www.museumpests.net/ , and more information about dealing with the historic use of pesticide use in museum collections can be found here: http://www.icom-cc.org/84/Biocides%20in%20Collections%20/.

    Best,
    Nicole Rode, BM textile conservator working on the shroud.

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