British Museum blog

Getting to know you – a first glimpse at the shroud

Monique Pullan, 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
The Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The shroud arrived in the Organics Conservation studios at the British Museum last week, and the project has now begun in earnest.

Accompanied by Jonathan Clark and Deborah Phipps, conservators from Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service (NMAS), and Faye Kalloniatis, research associate at Norwich Castle, the whole team was able to discuss first impressions – for some of us this was the first time we actually saw the textile. Jonathan and Deborah, together with Man Yee Liu, Head of Conservation at NMAS, will be joining us at key stages during the treatment.

The immediate reaction was one of surprise at how small the bundle is, at about 30 cm by 20 cm. But at the same time, we could see that there are many layers of fabric, and the fabric is quite fine– so potentially this could be quite large when opened.

British Museum and NMAS staff can’t wait to remove their coats before taking a first look. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

British Museum and NMAS staff can’t wait to remove their coats before taking a first look. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

So the question at the moment is – how big is it!?! And what shape is it? Not knowing makes planning difficult. We are now trying to arrange our work space and figure out how many tables we need, how big our support boards need to be, and so on. Make your bets now, as hopefully in a couple of weeks we’ll have opened it up to its full size!

It’s important to document the bundle as it is now, as this will be the last time it will be in this form. So we have to resist temptation to plunge in straight away and instead look for evidence to tell us if it has been opened up since discovery or not – if folded in antiquity we’ll need to consider if it’s more ethical to keep the bundle as it is.

Perhaps the Colman family looked at or even displayed the shroud at home or to their friends?

We can see one clue already – an anomalous pale cotton thread appears to be winding its way through to the inside of folds of the textile. This is clearly not an ancient Egyptian thread, not least because cotton wasn’t used then – probably a sign that it has been opened up since 1897.

The textile looks quite soft and flexible, but also appears very fragmentary, with some sections potentially joined to each other by a mere few threads. The newer looking thread is among the folds at the bottom. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The textile looks quite soft and flexible, but also appears very fragmentary, with some sections potentially joined to each other by a mere few threads. The newer looking thread is among the folds at the bottom. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

We also have to decide where to start unfolding it – there are no obvious edges from which to begin. We also don’t yet know how easy it will be to open? Although it looks soft and flexible, it could turn out to be quite brittle, particularly if there are any stained areas, with the fibres set in position. We can already see many holes and tears and, worryingly, fragments joined to each other by a mere few threads. When we lift the edges of folds to get a better look at the interior of the bundle, it really does look extremely fragmentary.

One exciting observation we’ve already made is that there are small hieroglyphs visible across the exposed textile. They are executed in black (most likely charcoal) and a red/brown (probably an ochre), the two colours most usually used by scribes at this time.

View of the reverse of the fabric, with the black ink of the hieroglyphs soaked through the linen. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

View of the reverse of the fabric, with the black ink of the hieroglyphs soaked through the linen. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Hopefully the curators will be able to decipher them, as not only will the hieroglyphic writing help us position any fragments, but of course the text will also help us understand what it is, why it was made and possibly even who it belonged to.

After we complete documenting the shroud as it is, we’ll finally start to unfold it. We’ll construct a large tent so we can work in a raised humidity environment and carefully start to lift each layer.

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How did this Egyptian textile come to be in Norwich?

Faye Kalloniatis, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

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

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

    This is the second in a new series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The rather unprepossessing museum storage box with its crumpled heap of ancient linen, had sat in the Norwich Castle stores for nearly a century. I became aware of it in 1999 when the Castle Museum was being refurbished and John Taylor, from the British Museum, had come to help with the Egyptian material.

He, as an expert, was greatly taken by the shroud – even from the little he could see of it in its creased state. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when I started working on the Egyptian collection, that I remembered this small box and its contents.

The linen was clearly worth investigating – and the British Museum thought so too. So, happily, the project to conserve and study the shroud got underway.

As part of that I have had the fascinating task of piecing together the history relating to how the shroud came into the Norwich Castle collection. The story is an interesting and absorbing one.

The collector

Jeremiah James Colman (1830 – 1898) © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Jeremiah James Colman (1830 – 1898) © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Sir Jeremiah Colman bought the shroud while visiting Egypt (end 1896 – early 1897).

Today, Colman is mainly remembered because of his association with mustard. Colman’s Mustards were manufactured in Norwich by several generations of his family and this was the source of their wealth.

Aside from his business concerns, Jeremiah held many public offices. For nearly 25 years, he was a Liberal MP for Norwich and, at various times, was Sheriff and Mayor for the city. Held in great esteem, thousands lined the streets to pay their last respects at his funeral.

Alan Colman, Jeremiah's son who wintered in Egypt because of poor health. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Alan Colman, Jeremiah's son who wintered in Egypt because of poor health. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Travelling in Egypt

Jeremiah travelled to Egypt for family reasons. His son, Alan, was consumptive and it was recommended that he spend the winter in Egypt. He set off in November of 1896, accompanied by two of his sisters as well as his very own medical attendant, a Mr Worthington.

Landing in Egypt, the party headed for Cairo and stayed at the Mena House Hotel, overlooked by the pyramids. Jeremiah joined them a few weeks later.

Early in January 1897 the entire party headed for Luxor. They set sail in a dabaheah – a luxury boat commonly hired by well-to-do travellers. It was named Hathor, and it came with a local crew of about 20.

Their travels along the Nile are captured by photographs taken by one of Colman’s daughters, Florence. Clearly a keen photographer, her images show a fascination with the people and sights of Egypt.

The Colmans on donkeys, led by dragomen and others, viewing the sights. Jeremiah is the figure with the beard, riding on a donkey; two of his daughters are also with him. © The Ludham Archive

The Colmans on donkeys, led by dragomen and others, viewing the sights. Jeremiah is the figure with the beard, riding on a donkey; two of his daughters are also with him. © The Ludham Archive

As the Colmans journeyed up the river, Alan’s health steadily deteriorated and he died in early February 1897 – within days of reaching Luxor.

The Colmans, now in mourning and with no wish to remain in Egypt, turned back and headed for Cairo. Jeremiah wrote home saying:

    ‘[w]e are making our way slowly down the river towards Cairo. . . Even apart from the sad associations of our trip, Egypt is not a place which fascinates me. The utter squalor, misery and dirt of the great part of the population is to me most depressing.’
The luxury boat, Hathor, hired by the Colmans to journey up the Nile to Luxor. © The Ludham Archive

The luxury boat, Hathor, hired by the Colmans to journey up the Nile to Luxor. © The Ludham Archive

But his daughters were more enchanted by the country. One wrote that ‘the wonders of that wonderful land . . . came like a rush . . . the brilliant colouring of the place and people alike . . . the bazaars with their priceless treasures of silks. . . and – still more fascinating – the study of the life of the people themselves, all take one captive.’

Buying antiquities

Colman, although not taken with Egypt, nevertheless ended up buying some of its antiquities. This was not uncommon for travellers with money. Jeremiah bought over 250 artefacts.

He had the foresight to have his collection catalogued. The leather-bound catalogue, embossed with Egyptian floral motifs, was the work of the Egyptologist, Quibell (keeper at the Cairo Museum and one of the discoverers of the famous Narmer Palette.)

The catalogue is an invaluable record. Apart from its information about the artefacts, it occasionally names the dealers, such as Mohammed Mohassib, a well-known and well-regarded Luxor dealer, and that at a time when the great demand for antiquities meant not all were so scrupulous.

Another dealer, named Abdul Medjid, is described by Quibell as ‘a thorough scamp’.

The shroud

One of Colman’s purchases was a shroud – the very one which is the subject of this project. Quibell’s catalogue entry is sketchy:

    ‘Linen Sheet. Covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions from the ‘Book of the Dead’. The mummy in the coffin was often covered with a linen sheet of this kind.’

Frustratingly, there is neither mention of the shroud’s provenance or date nor the dealer from whom it was bought.

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

As the shroud is unfolded, so we hope its story will unfold – its provenance, its date and, if we’re lucky, even its owner.

When Sir Jeremiah died (in 1898), he left his collection to two of his daughters, Helen and Ethel. They, too, were good custodians, making it available to anyone who wished to study it – such as the local Egyptian Society of East Anglia, who viewed it at Carrow House, home of the Colmans.

Carrow House, in Norwich. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Carrow House, in Norwich. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

In 1921, the sisters wrote to Norwich City Council offering them their Egyptian antiquities. Pleased to have such a donation, the City gladly accepted and the collection was soon housed in Norwich Castle where it still remains.

As a tribute to their brother, the sisters had a boat built and named it Hathor, after the dabaheah in which Alan had sailed along the Nile.

Hathor, the Norfolk wherry, beautifully decorated with Egyptian motifs, is now a pleasure boat. In the summer it can still be seen cruising along the Norfolk Broads, packed with tourists enjoying a day out.

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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

A charred seed…

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Conservator, Jamie Hood working on one of the cauldrons

The two Chiseldon cauldrons we chose to work on first were found next to each other in the pit and had corroded together.

My colleague Jamie Hood has been given the first cauldron to be removed from the ground during excavation to work on.

Although it appeared to be in one piece in the ground, it was heavily corroded with large cracks hidden by the mud and soil. It was impossible to lift whole, so was removed in four large chunks surrounded by soil. The fact that it is in pieces actually makes it better for Jamie to work on as it is easier to move, handle, and support, and also fits under a microscope.

When he first started work within a few minutes I heard: ‘WOW, look at this, a charred seed!’ from the other side of the room.

My cauldron was probably the last one placed in the pit thousands of years ago. This meant that it was resting on top of the others and was therefore the one first discovered by the metal detectorist in 2004.

Of all the cauldrons, it is in the worst condition – a chunk lifted in plaster bandages and a lot of small pieces of corroded metal. But, it might also be the most interesting.

Some small fragments of the copper alloy already cleaned have decorative scalloped edges, or, apparently, as decorative as it gets for cauldrons in the late Iron Age.

As yet we don’t know much more about this cauldron and wont until I excavate it from its soil block. However, due to its highly fragmentary condition it will not be possible to physically reconstruct it.

Instead I will try and concentrate on a virtual, or at least an intellectual reconstruction, trying to gain as much information from the fragments as possible.

A piece of one of the cauldrons

The most important areas are the rim, handles and decorative patches, and if we can relocate these and examine how they were constructed then this will tell us a great deal about the cauldron.

To make things more complicated some of Jamie’s cauldron was corroded to and lifted with mine. Trying to decide which fragments of 0.5mm metal belong to which cauldron will be very difficult and the whole process will need very careful excavation and detailed recording.

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, , , ,

An ancient Egyptian textile reveals its secrets…

Monique Pullan, British Museum

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle, packed for transport. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The Norwich Castle Museum Egyptian textile, seen here in the original bundle, packed for transport. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Over the next three months I’ll be leading an exciting joint project between conservators and curators from the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum to uncover the secrets of an ancient Egyptian textile.

The textile, probably a burial shroud, from the collections of Norwich Castle Museum, has been tightly folded into a small bundle ever since it was donated in the1920s by the Colman family of Norfolk.

There is no record of the textile having been unfolded, and little is known about it beyond the fact that it was purchased in Egypt in 1897. But glimpses of hieroglyphic texts, written in black and red inks, make the Egyptologists at both museums very keen to have a better look at the textile in its entirety.

Norwich Castle Museum (of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service - NMAS) research associate Faye Kalloniatis and NMAS conservator Jonathan Clarke carefully pack the textile for transport to the British Museum. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Norwich Castle Museum (of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service - NMAS) research associate Faye Kalloniatis and NMAS conservator Jonathan Clarke carefully pack the textile for transport to the British Museum. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

John Taylor, curator of the current British Museum exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, believes it may be inscribed with spells from the Books of the Dead, and possibly date from the early 18th dynasty (1550 – 1295 BC ), – over 3,000 years old.

If so, this would make it a very rare and important specimen – but first the bundle needs to be opened up for further investigation.

Up to now, the extremely fragile and fragmentary condition of the textile has meant that researchers have been reluctant to open it out for fear of causing damage. But now, with support from the Partnership UK program to facilitate skills sharing between national and regional museums, the textile will be coming into the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.

Here we’ve had the unique opportunity to build up specialised skills in the treatment of ancient archaeological textiles, and will work together with members of the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service conservation team.

From now until the end of March we’ll be updating the blog regularly to show how we investigate and conserve the textile, and ultimately discover the identity of this mysterious bundle of cloth. Whether it turns out to be that rare Book of the Dead shroud or not, it will surely have an interesting story to tell.

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Cauldrons on the move

Jamie Hood, British Museum

Conservator Jamie Hood labelling one of the cauldrons for transportation

As I wasn’t at the excavation of the Chiseldon cauldrons it was difficult to imagine that the nine or so blocks of soil sitting in plastic crates and wrapped in plaster bandages really contained Iron Age cauldrons. But a few weeks ago when Alex and I visited the Museum’s off-site store, I knelt down and looked at the closest crate and spotted the edges of metal sheet and part of an iron handle sticking out of the soil.

Conservator Alexandra Baldwin at the British Museum store

It’s at moments like this that you start to think about the step by step process of conserving the object to bring it back to life (and also quickly calculate how many hours it might take… literally hundreds).

But before we could start work we had to move the cauldrons from storage to the Museum itself.

The Museum’s off-site store is vast with hundreds of crates and many rows of racking which all hold evidence of Britain’s past. While it was easy for us to jump on the tube to get to the store, transporting the cauldrons was a little bit trickier.

We picked two of them – discovered next to each other in the burial pit, and corroded together – and packed them safely in big boxes. It’s always nerve-racking transporting fragile objects, so to protect them we surrounded them with rolled-up tissue paper, foam and bubble wrap.

Conservator Jamie Hood transporting one of the cauldrons at the British Museum

Once safely at the Museum we moved the crates to the metals conservation lab and carefully unpacked the cauldrons.

The first step is to record the soil blocks and fragments of cauldrons by taking pictures, making detailed drawings and examining the surface through a microscope. In preparation for the next stage, when conservation really begins, you can then begin to start removing some of the soil with small hand tools and brushes.

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, , , , ,

Digging up – and preserving – the Iron Age

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin excavating the cauldrons

Five years ago I, and my colleague Simon Dove in the department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum, joined a team from Wessex Archaeology in a field in Wiltshire to excavate what we thought were three small bowls. Two weeks later, in baking sun and torrential rain, we had lifted 10 – or 12 – rather large cauldrons.

Brilliant! 10 Cauldrons! Being extremely rare, this was an exciting find.

One would have been fantastic. Three would have been amazing. But 10-12, on the other hand, was a huge challenge. First, we had to excavate them. Then we had to store them and finally conserve them so we can learn from them and perhaps even put them on display.

With such a huge find, and with the conservation project alone estimated to take two of us two years, Jody Joy, British Museum curator of Iron Age Britain, and I decided to apply for funding to study the cauldrons properly and conserve them so that we could understand their wider significance and give them the attention they deserve.

An illustration of how the cauldrons may have looked when first buried

Now we have the funding, work has started and over the next two years myself and a colleague, and Jody, along with scientists and other British Museum staff, will be unravelling the evidence of life in the Iron Age the cauldrons can provide us with.

In the coming months I’ll be writing regular posts – as will Jody, and my colleague in the conservation team Jamie Hood – documenting the journey through the project and describing what goes on behind the scenes at the British Museum, revealing discoveries as we find them… and not to mention the challenges we face.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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

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