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

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Patricia Ewer says:

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


  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.


  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: , and more information about dealing with the historic use of pesticide use in museum collections can be found here:

    Nicole Rode, BM textile conservator working on the shroud.


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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap

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