British Museum blog

Ancient Egyptian spells for a high-ranking lady of the court

John Taylor, 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

In the last few weeks the shroud of Ipu has given up more – but not all – of its secrets. A close comparison of the piece belonging to Norwich Castle Museum with a photograph of the portions in the Cairo Museum has shown that the torn edges certainly join. The Cairo fragments have parts of spells from the Book of the Dead, some of the missing words of which are supplied by the piece belonging to Norwich.

John Taylor and Faye Kalloniatis from Norwich Castle Museum examine the text. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

John Taylor and Faye Kalloniatis from Norwich Castle Museum examine the text. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

All of the texts on the Cairo pieces have been published by Irmtraut Munro, and I have now identified those on the Norwich section. So we can now say that the shroud contained the words of at least 23 spells, and it is possible that others were originally present, which are now lost.

The texts on the Cairo portion include spells to allow the dead person freedom of movement, air to breathe and the ability to control one’s heart. There is also a self-contained group known as the ‘Transformation Spells’, which enabled the dead to assume different forms, including those of a falcon, a heron, a swallow and the god Ptah.

Part of spell 64, one of the most complex and obscure of all the texts in the Book of the Dead. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Part of spell 64, one of the most complex and obscure of all the texts in the Book of the Dead. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The main part of the Norwich fragment contains spell 64, one of the most complex and obscure of all the texts in the Book of the Dead. It makes various allusions to the nature of the creator god, to the supernatural powers which the dead person claims and to his/her ability to escape the confinement of the tomb so as to enjoy the life-giving rays of the sun. It ends with a long rubric – the conspicuous columns in red ink – which recounts the mythical finding of the words of the spell inscribed on a brick beneath the feet of a statue of the god Thoth in the temple of Hermopolis.

Part of spell 149, a description of the mounds of the netherworld. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Part of spell 149, a description of the mounds of the netherworld. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

This remarkable document is said to have been discovered ‘in the time of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Menkaure, true of voice, by the King’s Son Hordjedef, who found it when he was going about to make inspection of the temples.’ After spell 64 come spell 30B, which prevented the dead person’s heart from betraying him/her at the judgement, spell 100, which enabled the deceased to enter the sun god’s barque, part of spell 149, a description of the mounds of the netherworld, and lastly spell 136B for ‘sailing in the barque of Re’.

Several other mummy shrouds bearing Book of the Dead texts are known from the 17th and early 18th Dynasties (sixteenth century BC). Three are in the British Museum, but these differ from Ipu’s shroud in having coloured illustrations as well as texts. In fact, the closest parallels for Ipu’s inscriptions are to be found on the shrouds of members of the court who were buried at Thebes. Not only are these written in a similar style but there is a high degree of consistency in the particular spells chosen and in the sequence which they follow.

So, who was Ipu? The Cairo pieces of the shroud include her title, khekeret nesu, which can be loosely translated as ‘Lady in Waiting’. It was borne by women who belonged to the court and who were usually members of high-ranking families . So Ipu was evidently a person of consequence; whether any other records of her survive has yet to be discovered.

Where was the shroud found? Nothing definite is known about the Norwich part before it was bought by JJ Colman in 1897, but the piece now in Cairo is reported to have come from excavations by Gaston Maspero at Deir el-Bahri on the Theban west bank in 1891. But since we know Maspero was not in Egypt in 1891 this date is probably incorrect.

The leather-bound catalogue, decorated with Egyptian motifs, which JJ Colman commissioned for his collection. The shroud is listed here. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The leather-bound catalogue, decorated with Egyptian motifs, which JJ Colman commissioned for his collection. The shroud is listed here. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Another very similar shroud in Cairo has exactly the same recorded provenance but independent evidence shows that this one, made for a man named Mentuhotep, was found in the Royal Cache at Deir el-Bahri. This secret tomb, cleared under Maspero’s authority in 1881, contained the mummies of many of the kings, queens and lesser royalty of the 17th to 20th Dynasties, hidden there for safe keeping at the end of the New Kingdom. Almost all of their original valuable trappings had long gone; most of them were enclosed in second-hand coffins and some were wrapped in linen that had been made for other people and recycled. Mentuhotep’s inscribed shroud had been reused to wrap around the mummy of a princess Merytamun.

So, did Ipu’s shroud perhaps come from this same tomb, where it had been reused to wrap a royal mummy? The villagers of Qurna who found the cache about 1871 removed many portable items and sold them during the years before the official clearance in 1881, so the possibility exists that the Norwich shroud passed in this way into the stock of a local antiquities dealer, before eventually entering the collection of Colman.

The shroud will be discussed in depth during the free Study Day Unveiling the Norwich Shroud: an ancient Egyptian shroud conserved and revealed at the British Museum on Thursday 7 April, and repeated on 24 May at Norwich Castle Museum.

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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. mona says:

    is it possible to have summary about this disussion?I am an assisstant-lecturer in the fuclty of archaeology egyptology departement cairo university.

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