British Museum blog

Scientific investigation of the Norwich shroud

Janet Ambers, Scientist, British Museum

Research Fellow Emma Passmore taking UV images of the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Research Fellow Emma Passmore taking UV images of the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the 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

With the shroud unfolded for the first time (although still in need of much conservation attention) David Saunders, Keeper of Conservation and Scientific Research, Emma Passmore, Mellon Research Fellow, Caroline Cartwright, scientist, and I made our first visit to see what had been revealed on the inner surface.

David has a longstanding interest in the use of imaging techniques to enhance and investigate painted surfaces, and our main objective was to examine areas where text has been applied.

Using specialist cameras, we took both infrared and ultraviolet images of the shroud. Infrared reflectography is often employed in research into paintings to reveal initial sketches under the final images. For the shroud, it will make the black text clearer. This will help John Taylor with his interpretation of the hieroglyphs while the conservators continue to treat the shroud, and also allow the hieroglyphs to be published clearly for international scholars.

Imaging with ultraviolet light may help to show surface coatings and stains. Both of these approaches are very useful for objects like this as they provide information without the need for sampling, or indeed for any contact with the surface at all.

Caroline Cartwright, who specialises in fibre identification (amongst other things), took tiny samples of the linen ground (approximately two to three millimetres long) both with and without pigment.

Examining them under the scanning electron microscope (SEM) allowed her to positively identify the fibres as linen, and give the conservators information about their construction and condition.

SEM image of a fragment of the Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

SEM image of a fragment of the Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The images here clearly show the weave of the textile, the twist direction of the fibres, and pigment sitting on the surface of the linen fibres (which appears white under the SEM). It also shows how few breaks there are in each fibre, confirming their good condition, and how surprisingly clean they are, suggesting the shroud may have been kept mostly in a folded state, and/or not extensively disturbed, be it by repeated opening and folding, handling, study or display.

SEM image of linen fibres from the Norwich shroud. The lack of tears in the individual fibres confirms what good condition they are in. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

SEM image of linen fibres from the Norwich shroud. The lack of tears in the individual fibres confirms what good condition they are in. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

My main role is to identify the pigments used. To enable me to do this Melina Plottu, our textile conservation intern from France, collected samples of the various pigments. She removed tiny pieces of single fibres with traces of colour on and placed them between two slides. I took these back to our laboratories and examined them under the microscope of a Raman spectrometer.

Textile conservation intern Melina Plottu carefully places a sample of linen with traces of colour on it into a glass vial held by scientist Janet Ambers.  © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Textile conservation intern Melina Plottu carefully places a sample of linen with traces of colour on it into a glass vial held by scientist Janet Ambers. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

This equipment uses changes in the wavelength of a laser beam shone on to a material to provide an absolute identification.

Raman showed that both the light and the dark black pigments are based on carbon. There is a possibility that crushed charcoal was used for this, but the most common Egyptian black ink is known to have been produced using soot (sometimes called carbon black in the art world).

Why some areas of black text on the shroud are much lighter than others is not yet clear. The colour in the red ink comes from hematite, an iron oxide. This is responsible for the colour of red ochre, a form of red coloured earth extensively found throughout Egypt and frequently used as a pigment in Egyptian art.

Taking a sample from the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Taking a sample from the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Melina and Monique Pullan, the textile conservator leading the conservation, have also found a single area of white pigment, used around the area of a cartouche in the centre of the shroud. This proved to be gypsum, a white mineral common in Egypt.

Wall painting from the eighteenth dynasty tomb chapel of Nebamun. The skin of the central seated figure and male slave are coloured with red ochre © Trustees of the British Museum

Wall painting from the eighteenth dynasty tomb chapel of Nebamun. The skin of the central seated figure and male slave are coloured with red ochre © Trustees of the British Museum

The conservators were reassured to know it wasn’t huntite, another white mineral sometimes used as a pigment in Egypt – its sensitivity to moisture would have precluded many of the water based treatments used to relax and realign fragile fibres.

Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Dan says:

    I love the electron microscope pictures!

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10,202 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,202 other followers

%d bloggers like this: