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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Trips to Xiamen Museum and Lanzhou conference on paper conservation

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Examining the condition of a painting

The conservation studio at Shanghai Museum is often asked to conserve paintings for other Museums, which has given me the opportunity to observe the staff here working on a number of different, challenging objects.

I was kindly invited to join the conservators on a trip to the Xiamen Museum to return 15 conserved paintings and collect 10 new paintings in need of conservation. I was fortunate to be able to see the Xiamen Museum paintings before conservation – in quite poor condition and to follow the conservation assessments.

At Shanghai airport on the way to Xiamen Museum

An international conference on paper conservation across East Asia that I went to in December gave me an opportunity to learn more about the spread of expertise across the region in greater detail.

The conference took place in Gansu province, Lanzhou. Its theme was the research and conservation of paper from the Silk Road. The first gathering of this conference took place in Beijing in 2006, and was followed by a second and third event in Japan and Korea respectively.

Langzhou National Museum

This symposium was held by Unesco, the Chinese Academy of Cultural heritage, Gansu Provincial Museum and Gansu Archaeology research Institute, and united conservators from the five Asian countries of China, Japan, North and South Korea and Mongolia to share and discuss the conservation of paper relics.

On this occasion particular focus was put on the different techniques used in traditional paper-making in each country, and modern solutions for preserving the region’s paper heritage were presented by the various expert guests. A special exhibition also gave me a chance to see unearthed paper relics from the Silk Road itself.

The hectic city of Shanghai

Back in hectic Shanghai, the environment in which I work is unique with an intense daily rhythm of tasks. The experience of learning from the wonderful professionals in this field really is a privilege.

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Putting the Chiseldon Cauldrons in context

Jody Joy, British Museum

I am the curator responsible for the European Iron Age collection at the British Museum, and will be working with Alexandra Baldwin and Jamie Hood on the Chiseldon Cauldrons project throughout the next year.

At the moment I am taking a back seat in the project, to support Alex and Jamie as far as I can in their conservation work. But once the conservation and scientific analysis is completed it is up to me to work out why so many cauldrons were placed together in a large pit alongside two cattle skulls sometime between 200-50 BC.

In the meantime I have begun to research cauldrons and other metal vessels.

The Battersea cauldron, an example of an Iron Age cauldron on display in the British Museum

Cauldrons are a very well-known type of Iron Age artefact but surprisingly little is known about them. We think they were used to boil meat and/or to serve alcoholic beverages such as beer or mead. They are substantial artefacts and quite rare so we think they were used for feasting.

A hook from about 1050-900 BC, possibly used to cook meat over a cauldron

Part of the problem is that many cauldrons were discovered in rivers or bogs during the nineteenth-century so we have very little evidence to work with other than the artefacts themselves. This is why the Chiseldon discovery is so exciting. Because the objects were well-excavated we have a detailed record of how they were deposited. We also have up to 13 vessels to compare and contrast.

The discovery has certainly sparked a lot of interest among fellow archaeologists and I have already given a number of public lectures to various universities and archaeological societies.

Late last year I gave a lecture at Leicester University and there was a fantastic turnout. Usually one of the students bakes a cake or biscuits; however, in honour of the cauldrons we were treated to a steaming vat of punch served in a miniature cauldron!

I am extremely excited by what Alex and Jamie have discovered so far. One of the major questions we have is whether the cauldrons were made especially for deposition.

I think we can already suggest that they weren’t. The cauldrons that have been excavated so far are very different and look to have been made by different people using different techniques. Some also show possible evidence of repair and past use.

This is giving us a fantastic insight into Iron Age technology and methods of artefact manufacture. It also opens up further questions.

If cauldrons are rare artefacts and the examples we have were not all made at the same time, can we suggest that different communities brought their own vessels to a large feast at Chiseldon?

If so what was the purpose of the gathering and why were the artefacts placed in a pit at the end of the feast? We may not ultimately be able to answer these questions but I can’t wait to see what further discoveries Alex and Jamie make so we can at least try.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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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

Working with Chinese master scroll-mounters

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Conservation work in progress at the Shanghai Museum

A few weeks into my secondment, I started working under the guidance of Master Zhu Ping Fang, observing a large variety of conservation cases from large format hanging scrolls to hand scrolls on both paper and silk.

I first came to Shanghai Museum’s Chinese paintings conservation studio in 2005. My first thoughts on that occasion were that I had entered a secret temple.

The intensity and precision of the conservator’s activities when you see them in person reveal the incredible depth of their skill and knowledge, and I was absolutely fascinated. I didn’t know at the time how this experience would impact my education and my everyday life as strongly as it does now.

This is a busy studio and the walls are surrounded by thick wooden boards covered with drying paintings which are gradually incorporated into beautiful fabric mounts. The paintings are enclosed in the most beautiful plain and patterned silk, the style and proportions of which have been established largely by tradition.

Conservators hard at work

The same rules and methods have been used for hundreds of years and are guided by aesthetics, proportion, materials and hand-made tools. Students of scroll mounting have to practice until they have mastered the complexities of the handling and use of tools and materials including brushes, knives, paste, paper, and silk.

Some of the tools used for mounting

As assistant, I have to do everything that relates to the preparation of materials, from making paste, to dying paper and silk, selecting and preparing pigments for toning processes and preparing lining papers and silks. Equally, the assistant works closely with the master on the paintings themselves carrying out backing removal, repairs, as well as lifting or pasting large format artwork, which has to be done by two people.

Mixing the paste for mounting

Different conservation and remounting procedures take place simultaneously in the studio and so I have also assisted the masters with various treatments. I have worked on establishing the appropriate historical proportions and preparing silk to be used to surround a painting and fit it into the structure for a hanging scroll called Lizhou. I have also burnished the back of four paintings and inserted wooden fittings onto two scrolls.

The conservation studio with hanging scrolls on the walls

I lined a painting with three layers of medium weight Xuan paper and mounted it onto lined and dyed silk borders in the so-called ‘jinpian’ (or ‘frame’) format – a flat, 2D mount as opposed to a scroll mount which is rolled.

I was also assigned a work of calligraphy that required full treatment. That means assessment and selection of the appropriate procedure and materials, as well as cleaning the painting and dying its new lining paper. I’ll write more about this in a later post.

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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

A year’s placement in Shanghai

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Over the coming months I will be writing regularly about my experiences in the Painting Conservation Studio at the Shanghai Museum in Shanghai, where for a year I am studying to complete my training in traditional scroll mounting.

Valentina Marabini at work with a colleague in the studio at Shanghai Museum

Since 2003, I have been working in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum learning, under the guidance of Mrs Qiu Jin Xian, the skills and art of Chinese painting conservation and traditional mounting techniques.

It takes 10 years to acquire the necessary knowledge of these traditions. So in December last year, to undergo the crucial final stage of my training, with the support of the British Museum and the generous sponsorship of the Bei ShanTang JSLee Memorial Foundation I travelled to China and the Painting Conservation Studio of the Shanghai Museum for a year-long secondment.

Shanghai Museum

I’m here to refine my knowledge of traditional conservation and scroll-mounting, working with pictorial artefacts on paper and silk: hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, fan and albums.

There is not much literature to study or many courses to attend in order to specialise in this field, so the only way to learn the skills is by observing the work of conservators and, assisting senior teachers.

The opportunity to spend one year fully immersing myself in the work and life of the Shanghai Museum mounting studio is invaluable in increasing my understanding of the form and function of Chinese art within its historical context.

It will additionally improve my fluency in the Chinese language, but, most importantly, this placement will help me refine the skills needed to care for the Chinese paintings in the British Museum collection.

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Piecing together the Chiseldon cauldrons puzzle

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin working on one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

As is often the case, the painstaking process of excavating the cauldron I’m working on has been more complex and time consuming than we initially thought.

The majority of the cauldron was lifted from its findspot in a block of soil supported by plaster bandages. Hundreds of smaller fragments were also removed from around the object during excavation. The fragmentary state of this cauldron is partially due to the fact that it was buried upside down, and over time the weight and the pressure of the overlying soil crushed and distorted it.

I began by carefully cutting away thin strips of plaster to reveal the top of the block and clear soil from the metal. With heavy clay soil, which is more solid than the objects, this has to be done with great care using scalpels and leaf trowels to remove soil dampened with water and alcohol.

One of the Chiseldon cauldrons before being unwrapped

Working down in layers, the sheet metal is uncovered, and the true condition of the object revealed. It is highly fragmentary and even undisturbed areas are in pieces.

Fragments loose in the soil have to be rejoined back onto larger sections immediately otherwise their location will be lost. This is done using thin tabs of nylon gossamer, a thin random weave of synthetic fibres, adhered over the join.

Removing the plaster support and soil from around the object makes it very unstable and because of this you are unable to see the entire object at once; the metal is so thin and fragile that it is unable to support its own weight.

I have now laid out the fragments from the excavation on a large table and have been looking for joins between them, and also between the fragments and metal contained in the soil block. Although I have found a number of joins there have been disappointingly few.

Fragments of one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

Very quickly it became apparent that there was something strange about this cauldron – there seemed to be too much copper alloy – several folded layers in the block as well as large sheet fragments.

From knowledge of other cauldrons we can tell that they are made in sections riveted together; the iron rim supporting the handles, then below this, two sections of copper alloy bowl. As I began to reveal more it appeared that there were two bases on top of each other – was this two cauldrons one inside another? Or were we looking at areas of a separate cauldron either displaced during burial or placed into the pit in fragments?

As each layer is revealed the position of the fragments is carefully recorded. Stephen Crummy, one of the Museum’s illustrators, has been using 3D laser scanning and photogrametery to map the block.

The next stage will be to try and decipher and interpret the remains. Then, after supporting and stabilising them, we will remove sections of the metal, effectively disassembling the object from around the soil.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Translating the hieroglyphs on an ancient Egyptian shroud

John Taylor, British Museum

British Museum curator John Taylor examines the text for the first time with Norwich Castle Museum research associate Faye Kalloniatis, British Museum conservator Monique Pullan and textile conservation intern Melina Plottu. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

British Museum curator John Taylor examines the text for the first time with Norwich Castle Museum research associate Faye Kalloniatis, British Museum conservator Monique Pullan and textile conservation intern Melina Plottu. © 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

When I visited the textile conservation lab to see the shroud unfolded for the first time, I was delighted to find that my first suspicion about its contents had been right – it is indeed a mummy cloth inscribed with texts from the Book of the Dead in vertical columns of red and black hieroglyphs.

Shrouds of this type date mainly to the early phase of the Book of the Dead (17th and early 18th Dynasty, about 1570-1450 BC) before the spells began to be written on rolls of papyrus. They are quite rare.

The handwriting appears consistent in style throughout, suggesting that all the texts were written by the same person. The script is semi-cursive: several signs have been drawn very rapidly and simply, and are closer in form to hieratic than hieroglyphic. Again this is exactly what would be expected of an inscribed shroud from the beginning of the New Kingdom.

The first glimpse of such an object brings a lot of questions crowding into the mind at once. Is it complete? Who did it belong to? What do the texts actually say?

The cartouche contains the name of King Menkaure. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The cartouche contains the name of King Menkaure. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The eye is naturally drawn to the double column of text in red ink roughly in the middle of the cloth and I was immediately struck by the presence there of a cartouche – the oval enclosure which surrounds a royal name in Egyptian inscriptions. For a split second I wondered if this could be the burial shroud of a king, but a closer look at the surrounding words showed this was not so.

The red text turned out to be the rubric (endnote) of spell 64 of the Book of the Dead, which gives an account of the mythical discovery of the spell in the reign of Menkaure, builder of the Third Pyramid at Giza (about 2520 BC)– and his was the name in the cartouche.

So was the owner of the shroud mentioned somewhere else? I cast my eyes further, looking for a name among the words in black, and there it was: Ipu (a woman), daughter of Mutresti. Both names are typical of the very beginning of the 18th Dynasty, and they appeared several times in different parts of the inscriptions.

Everything points to this being a classic example of such a shroud, so the next step will be to identify the texts. This is a job which needs to be done in the study, but even a preliminary glance proved to be informative.

The text of the left hand column states the shroud owner’s name (Ipu, daughter of Mutresti). © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The text of the left hand column states the shroud owner’s name (Ipu, daughter of Mutresti). © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The selection of spells that were written on these shrouds often varies, but some popular ones occur on most of the surviving examples. I recognised at the right-hand end part of spell 149, a description of the mounds of the netherworld, mysterious sacred places which the Egyptians believed they would have to pass by on the journey to eternal life.

This spell usually concludes early manuscripts of the Book of the Dead, and its occurrence at the edge of the textile suggested that we probably have one end of the shroud more or less intact. However, the left-hand edge is torn and there was no way of telling how much might be missing.

Once back in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan I began to research parallel examples and to see whether anything else might be known about Ipu. Fortunately the great German scholar Irmtraut Munro has published a large two-volume work on early 18th Dynasty mummy shrouds in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. I consulted this and, astonishingly, found that it included the shroud of a lady Ipu, daughter of Mutresti, covered with spells from the Book of the Dead.

The photograph in the volume showed that the handwriting is the same as that on the Norwich shroud and that the Cairo piece too is incomplete, so almost certainly they were parts of the same cloth.

Where did they come from and how did they become separated?

There is clearly more to be discovered about this remarkable object.

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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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