British Museum blog

A conservator says goodbye to China


Valentina Marabini, British Museum

After a year in China studying with the conservators at the Shanghai Museum, I arrived back in London in mid-December to start putting into practice at the British Museum the many new skills and techniques I learned.

Examining a painting in the studio

In the last few months of my placement, I undertook a number of projects and had the opportunity to speak about my work at some international events.

One such event was the Forum for Curators of Chinese Art at the Seattle Art Museum in the USA, 27-29 July organised by the JS Lee Foundation. Curators, scientists, archeologists and conservators from both western and eastern museums came together to present, discuss and share their work and I was invited to speak about my time studying the conservation of Chinese heritage paintings in the conservation studio at Shanghai Museum.

In October I gave an introduction to the techniques I used in two conservation cases at the Fine Art Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This gave me the chance to visit the Hong Kong Museum of Art, where I was able to meet fellow conservators and discuss examples from their collections and conservation challenges and methods with them.

The Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

I then went on to the National Palace Museum of Taipei, where I was given the honour of seeing some of their great masterpieces. The Head of Conservation, Mr Hung Sun Xin, allowed me to spend some time at their conservation facility and talked with me about materials and methods they use.

Finally, a visit to the Palace Museum in Beijing concluded my time in China. I have great interest in the northern style of conservation practice and the short exchange with my counterparts in Beijing left a warm impression contrasting with the cold temperature in the city.

The Palace Museum in Beijing, China

Now, back in London, I am beginning to reflect on the opportunity I’ve just had and my gratitude to the JS Lee Foundation for making this year of study – and the extensive knowledge it has brought me – possible.

I’d also like to express my appreciation to Master Zhu Pin Fang, whose time, knowledge and assistance provided me with the chance to develop my technical skills in a unique environment.

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Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai

Turning a Chinese painting into a hanging scroll


Valentina Marabini, British Museum

As promised in a previous post, I will now describe the last stages of the conservation of a painting and how it is turned into a hanging scroll, which can be safely rolled for storage. This process is called zhuang hua.

Detaching a painting from the drying board

Detaching a painting from the drying board

After the painting has been lined with paper and framed with mounting silk, it is stretched and adhered by narrow margins onto a wooden drying board. It is left there to dry for up to five months, depending on the age and condition of the painting. Following this period, the flat and slightly stiff assemblage of the mount and the painting is detached from the drying board using a thin bamboo spatula and placed face down on the red lacquer table ready to be burnished.

Burnishing the back of the painting

Burnishing the back of the painting

A thin layer of wax is applied to the verso – or back – of the painting and this is then gently burnished (polished) with a smooth river stone. This process produces a beautiful smooth, glossy surface on the back of the scroll. The application of the wax and the burnishing compresses the scroll layers and closes the pores of the paper, thus providing the scroll with flexibility and stability.

Using a special Chinese knife to make the hanging scroll rod.

Using a special Chinese knife to make the hanging scroll rod.

The last step of the mounting process is the fixing of the original top stave, tian gan, and bottom roller, di gan, or, if necessary, replacements custom-made from cedar wood. The shape and diameter of these are proportional to the dimensions of the scroll.

Small holes are drilled perpendicularly in the top stave and hand-made, copper hooks, ji jiao, are carefully stapled and secured inside it. A cotton cord, shen zi, is inserted inside the hooks and secured with two rods respectively at the extremities.

Treated silk is tied at the centre of the cord to fasten the hanging scroll.

Treated silk is tied at the centre of the cord to fasten the hanging scroll.

The two sides of the wooden stave are covered with the same plain silk used to mount the scroll. These are called fengtou.

The same silk is used to produce three thin strips that are pasted to close the loose ends of the cord at the edges. The choice and thickness of the strips illustrated here are characteristic of the Yan Ban Su Ban School style adopted by the Shanghai Museum team.

Special open silk called bai lin dai is laminated with flour paste and left to dry overnight. It is then cut into strips, folded in four and sewn to form a ribbon called dai zi. This is tied at the centre of the cord to fasten the hanging scroll.

The insertion of the bottom roller, di gan

The insertion of the bottom roller, di gan

The bottom roller is selected for its weight. Both ends of it are worked with a special knife, each to form a point. Two hollow hardwood mahogany pommels called zhou tou are then fixed onto the wooden rod ends by forcing them in with a wooden hammer. As with the rest of the mounting process, the precision required at this point is paramount!

The finished article

The finished article

The scroll can now be rolled, using the pommels, and secured with a ribbon or unrolled and hung as a hanging scroll or lizhou.

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Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai

Conserving a Qing dynasty calligraphy scroll

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

In a previous post I described a hanging scroll that I was working on – a work of Qing Dynasty calligraphy. It is now finished. I wrote then that I would explain the process used to conserve it, so here goes.

The first thing I had to do was to assess the scroll condition. The scroll is executed on paper – zhi ben hua long-fibered, which looks almost like silk. It was carefully analysed, photographed and the treatment procedure set. We next established the proportions and design for a new scroll mount.

A close-up of the scroll showing horizontal cracks

Unfortunately, the scroll was very creased with extensive horizontal cracks and signs of many previous repairs. However, the paint itself was stable and therefore suitable to be cleaned using a ‘wet’ treatment.

Using a broad paibi brush we carefully sprinkled water over the surface and drained it off.

Applying a wet treatment

When the painting was clean we could remove the old linings. A layer of dry xuan paper was placed over the face of the scroll, and the scroll and its support were loosely rolled up. The scroll was unrolled and flattened over wang wang juen (an open silk) face down and left overnight. During this time the paste and layers of backing papers became softer, making them easier to work with.

Removing the backing layers

To be able to remove the backing papers we had to remove many of the scroll layers. The scroll had three layers of backing papers – (i) a layer of white xuan paper repairs, (ii) a second lining of very long fibred paper and (iii) a first lining of thin xuan paper in direct contact with the calligraphy.

We cleaned the edges of the missing areas, removing old paste residues and lightly evened their thickness with a very thin spatula. Some of the previous repairs were in good condition and were left in situ, but some had deteriorated and so were removed. The calligraphy was now ready for relining.

Pasting the back of the scroll

Layers of paper were selected and dyed with natural pigments mixed with animal glue and water to match the tone. The back of the calligraphy was pasted with thin flour paste using a paibi brush. The first lining paper (a long fibered paper) was moistened and positioned over the calligraphy and adhered with a wuzhou brush. On top of this a second lining of mian lian (thin xuan paper) was pasted; this is called jia tou meaning additional lining.

False paper margins were adhered to the edge of the calligraphy to facilitate joining to its new silk mount later on.

Work continues on the scroll

When the lining was complete we could check the calligraphy itself. Missing areas were repaired with new paper made of mian lian and were evened with a thin spatula. The calligraphy was then turned face up and left to dry naturally.

Retouching the calligraphy

After sizing and drying, the calligraphy was again lightly moistened and adhered to a white xuan paper, face up on the table. We could now start retouching. This is done in natural light, and aims to match the repaired areas to the colours of the original. Ink and pigments are carefully diluted and then applied.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

This process was followed by tou liao, the selection and dying of the appropriate silk to form the new mount. The silk mount was to be in two colours, a plain and a grey-blue pattern silk.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

With retouching completed, the calligraphy was detached and the edges of the mount were squared. The mounting silk was cut to size and attached to the calligraphy using a technique called wa hua: a window is cut precisely in the silk and the calligraphy is inserted into it.

The scroll after treatment

A final double-layered backing paper completed the lining stage and, after a period of drying, wooden fittings were attached to the top and bottom of the scroll so it was ready for hanging. I will write about that in my next post…

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The future of the Norwich shroud

Faye Kalloniatis, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The Norwich Shroud before conservation and research. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The Norwich Shroud before conservation and research. © 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

Well, this will be the final blog entry for the Norwich shroud and what a way we’ve come over the past few months

As the project got underway, one highlight followed another. The first was the initial unrolling, when we watched the small and crumpled scrap unfurl to become a good-sized fragment of shroud. Then we saw that it had not merely a few columns of text but, rather, was filled with it – an epigrapher’s dream.

John Taylor, British Museum curator, gives a lecture at the Norwich Shroud Study day. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

John Taylor, British Museum curator, gives a lecture at the Norwich Shroud Study day. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Then came the cartouche of Menkaure, which sent us all into paroxysms of delight. No sooner had we come to terms with this when we discovered the name of the shroud’s owner – a certain Ipu, daughter of Mutresti.

Yet there was more to come.

We found that other fragments of her shroud existed at Cairo Museum. This was a key moment as it significantly increased what we would be able to learn about the Norwich portion. For instance, from that stemmed the very distinct possibility that the shroud came from the Royal Cache of 1881.

Had we written the script for the Norwich shroud project we couldn’t have devised anything more – or even as – wondrous as that. But with the shroud’s rarity comes a responsibility – not only to ensure that it is preserved and made accessible for future generations but also that we continue to study it and set it within the wider context of the religious and funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians.

Some of this work has already begun. The shroud is now stabilized; having been mounted on a fabric-lined board and secured with a semi-transparent net stitched over it. This has meant that it can be stored and studied safely, and even be displayed and loaned.

Visitors to the Study day examine the shroud as Melina Plottu (far left), British Museum conservation intern, explains the techniques used to conserve the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Visitors to the Study day examine the shroud as Melina Plottu (far left), British Museum conservation intern, explains the techniques used to conserve the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

We’ve also worked to publicise the shroud as widely as possible – through this blog and through two study days reporting the findings of the project. The shroud has now returned to Norwich, and in the long-term, it’s hoped that it’ll be exhibited at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery as the focus of a temporary exhibition.

Still to come are a couple of articles in various publications, and these are currently being written by several of us in the project team. But this, we hope, is only a start.

The Egyptological community is beginning to hear about the shroud and curiosity is being roused. In particular, members of the Totenbuch Projekt, based at Bonn, are keen to see the shroud and to study it.

This is very good news because they will bring their high level of expertise to the endeavour and will publish it further. Through such publication the shroud will find its place in the small corpus of such artefacts and will play its part in adding to our knowledge about the religious practices of the ancient Egyptians.

So, one phase is ending but another is beginning.

Much of what has been achieved has been thanks to Partnership UK – a scheme which made it possible for curators, conservators and scientists from the British Museum and the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service to share their skills and professional knowledge.

And thanks, of course, to all those who have followed the blog over these past few months.

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Conserving an ancient Egyptian shroud

Melina Plottu, textile conservation intern, British Museum

Stitching the semi-transparent net to the cotton below to avoid stitching through the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Stitching the semi-transparent net to the cotton below to avoid stitching through 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

As an intern in the textile studio of the British museum, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on the Norwich shroud conservation project. This began in January, and I have been working with the team since the very beginning, participating in all the stages of the conservation treatment.

With decisions about how to conserve the shroud made, we could begin to plan the details of the work.

We first had to make the shroud’s final support board. We used a thick, acid free card that has a honeycomb structure inside. This makes it a very strong but light material, and perfect to use as a large carrying board. We covered it with a brushed cotton fabric to give it a slightly soft padding, and on top of that with a cotton fabric dyed to a neutral beige colour chosen by the team.

Covering the acid-free final support board with cotton fabrics. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Covering the acid-free final support board with cotton fabrics. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Next was the small matter of transferring the shroud onto the board. The handling and moving of a large, fragmentary and fragile textile is not straightforward and needs to be carried out like a military manœuvre.

We needed to get it in the right position on its support board straight away, because once it was on it, the nap of the cotton fabric would grip the shroud fragments and prevent us from moving it around.

Essentially we had to do a double flip to turn the textile over so that it was lying face down, and then back again onto the prepared support board. Each time the textile was sandwiched between rigid support boards to keep it in position.

Sandwiching the shroud, which is upside down, in between its temporary and final support boards. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Sandwiching the shroud, which is upside down, in between its temporary and final support boards. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

We put the shroud on its temporary board in exactly the position we wanted it to be on its final support board, measuring in from the edges to ensure it was centred. The prepared final support board was then placed face down, resting directly on the shroud, with the corners of the two boards meeting exactly. The edges of the two support boards were clipped together, and the whole assemblage was turned as quickly as possible.

Melina Plottu preparing dye solutions for our colour samples. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Melina Plottu preparing dye solutions for our colour samples. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

To secure the shroud to the board without stitching through it, we lay a piece of dyed nylon net. It took over 15 sample dyes to find a colour for the net which least affected the appearance of the shroud, the texts in particular. We viewed the samples under all varieties of lighting conditions and from all angles, and finally got a colour we were all happy with.

A semi-transparent net, dyed to be nearly invisible once in contact with the textile, is laid over the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

A semi-transparent net, dyed to be nearly invisible once in contact with the textile, is laid over the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The three layers of fabric – that is, the cotton covering the support board, the shroud, and the net, were then secured together with stitches. By stitching through the thousands of small holes in the shroud, we anchor the semi transparent net to the cotton below, and thereby avoid stitching through the actual shroud itself. We use fine silk thread and curved needles that are normally used in surgery.

A fine curved needle, designed for use in surgery, is used for the stitching. A plait of monofilament silk thread can be seen in the background with the individual threads we use sticking out. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

A fine curved needle, designed for use in surgery, is used for the stitching. A plait of monofilament silk thread can be seen in the background with the individual threads we use sticking out. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

As we stitch, we have to ensure each thread is aligned in the direction of the weave as best is possible. This delicate work took over four weeks and at times three people were working on different areas simultaneously.

We are still completing this stage of the conservation treatment so it will be ready in time for the next Norwich Shroud Study Day, held at Norwich Castle Museum on May 24. When we’re done, the shroud will be stabilised and can be admired by the public on display or loan. I hope they will take as much pleasure in viewing the object as the team had working on it.

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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

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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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud, , ,

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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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , ,

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.

Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai, , , ,

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