British Museum blog

What can we do to preserve an ancient Egyptian shroud?

Nicole Rode, textile conservator, 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

Now we’ve worked with curators and scientists to (safely) get as much information as we can, it’s time to ensure the next stage of the shroud’s life, as a studied and enjoyed museum artefact, doesn’t cause it to deteriorate.

The shroud fully opened up from its original bundle © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

The shroud fully opened up from its original bundle © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

So what are our options? After opening up the shroud, one option would be to leave it exactly like this and simply put it into good storage. As long as it was on a carrying board, stored flat in dark place, like a drawer unit, it would be fairly stable and allow for occasional study by individual scholars.

Leaving the textile in this state, however, completely prevents the many other roles the shroud might be asked to perform: it would really be too vulnerable for extensive study, and certainly wouldn’t be able to go on display, or be shipped to national and international venues for loan. In light of this we decided we needed to go further in stabilising it.

There is no one way to treat an archaeological textile – they are all made differently, come to the studio in different conditions, and have different end roles. Thus a treatment that suits one shroud will not necessarily suit another. With the NMAS conservators, we began by first looking at what techniques had been successfully used in the past – senior conservators at the British Museum including Monique Pullan, Pippa Cruickshank and Anna Harrison have treated numerous Egyptian textiles such as the shroud of Resti , and the shroud for a unknown person that was recently displayed in the exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian book of the dead.

This was too fragile to support its own weight, so it has been stitched onto a cotton fabric with fine monofilament silk.

This was too fragile to support its own weight, so it has been stitched onto a cotton fabric with fine monofilament silk.

Some fragile textiles can be supported underneath with woven fabrics secured with stitching, such as an Egyptian tunic on display in Room 66. Where the needle might cause damage, for example by making holes through a painted area of a shroud, we might choose to adhere it to a support fabric or fine paper with conservation-grade adhesives, such as the shroud of Amenhotep. But we don’t rush to use adhesives as they are harder to remove in the long-term.

In other cases we use a combination of techniques – for example the shroud with a bead net, on display in Room 63, uses both small adhesive patches and stitched support (the detailed conservation records of all these shrouds can be read on the Museum’s collection online).

This shroud was conserved for display by using a combination of small conservation-grade adhesive patches adhered to its reverse and an overall stitched support. It is on display in Room 63.

This shroud was conserved for display by using a combination of small conservation-grade adhesive patches adhered to its reverse and an overall stitched support. It is on display in Room 63.

The important principle that we abide by in any conservation treatment is that of ‘minimal intervention’ – we try to apply the least amount necessary to make an object safe. We also ensure that what we do does not unwittingly destroy information about the object that has yet to be revealed – or alter its appearance in any way that can’t be reversed.

Because the shroud was so fragmentary and vulnerable, we suggested that it was mounted on a rigid support board. This would prevent any damage caused by flexing the aged fibres, and at the same time would provide a good means of handling and displaying it. Luckily the shroud proved to be of a size that can be kept fully opened.

Because of the relative softness of the fibres, the numerous holes in the shroud, the looseness of the weave structure, and the fact that there were no brittle areas, we decided a stitched support would be the most suitable conservation option. Specifically, we would sandwich the shroud between two support fabrics – a solid cotton backing and a fine semi-transparent net. By stitching them together, they would hold all the damaged sections in place most securely, which was especially important if it were ever to go on vertical display or travel on loan.

One of the strongest advantages of this sandwich technique is that much less stitching is done through the actual historic textile. Another advantage is that it’s removable – the possibility of reversal is one of the central tenets of conservation. Also, if the net is dyed to the right colour, it will be virtually invisible – there are many textiles in the Museum’s Egyptian galleries that have net overlays that are very discreet – specifically on the shroud of a youth and the shroud with a bead net, both on display in Room 63.

Last but not least, providing appropriate environmental conditions is integral to the long-term preservation of this remarkable textile. This includes the conditions in which it is stored and displayed – for example ensuring the light levels on display are controlled to prevent fading, and the humidity is at an appropriate level to prevent mould growth or desiccation.

With the treatment strategy decided, we can now begin to look at the details.

In the next post we’ll show you the action – dyeing the right colour of net, the tiny eye surgery needles we use for stitching, our invisible silk threads and how we get the shroud onto its rigid board in less than two seconds!

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  1. Snowden Wainwright says:

    Thank you for including detailed photographic examples showing results of various techniques in fabric conservation. I have followed your work on the shroud with interest.

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