British Museum blog

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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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud, , , , , ,

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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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud, , , , ,

Excavating a chamber tomb

Carina Summerfield-Hill, physical anthropologist

Rami Mohamed Abdu and Abou Ad Abu Taher excavating through the roof of the western chamber

I’m one of three physical anthropologists working in Cemetery C at Amara West, and in recent days I’ve been working on a chamber tomb (Grave 234) – the largest and most exciting of grave types here.
Rami Mohamed Abdu lifting the beer jar from the shaft of grave 234

The tomb consists of a central shaft with an underground eastern and western chamber. We started excavating down into the central shaft to expose the doorway to each chamber. The sand in the shaft contained a complete Egyptian-style beer jar.

Since then, we have focused on excavating the western chamber.

The safest way to excavate it was to dig down from above, through the chamber’s roof, otherwise the fragile but heavy layers of alluvium could collapse on us. Once the chamber was exposed, we removed windblown sand which had accumulated inside.

It contains three articulated burials and a concentration of disarticulated bone that included four complete skulls.

Carina Summerfield-Hill excavating the Nubian style crouched burial

So far I have excavated one of the articulated burials towards the centre of the chamber, the feet of which poked out into the shaft.

The entire burial was within the remains of a wooden casing, and was of an adult female, fully articulated in a crouch position – this was a really pleasing discovery as it is a local Nubian tradition of burial, as opposed to the Egyptian tradition of laying the body out in an extended burial position. This is the first Nubian burial type to be found in Cemetery C!

Western chamber of Grave 234 with three articulated burials and concentration of disarticulated human remains (under cover to the right)

The western chamber also contains two further articulated burials that are extended – It is fascinating to see two different traditions in the same grave.

Over the coming days I shall be excavating these two extended burials along with the concentration of disarticulated bones, so there is a lot of work still to do.

And next we have the eastern chamber, where we have just begun removing the surface to get access.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , , , , ,

In the back rooms

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Large vessel (C4029) found buried in the floor of the back room

Halfway through our third season of excavations in the northwest part of the walled town, our understanding of the nature of the area, and how it changed – whether on a room-by-room or building-by-building basis – is continuing to evolve.

No two house plans are the same, undoubtedly dictated by a range of factors. Here, some of the houses needed to be built into and over existing architecture, including large vaulted storerooms. But the circumstances of individual household units could also prompt houses to be joined, divided or internally re-arranged.

Papyri contemporary with Amara West describe complex fluctuations in houses at Thebes, with numbers oscillating between six and 15 people in a short time frame, due to deaths, marriages and even divorce.

The four 20th dynasty houses excavated so far in the northwestern town have between three and four rooms each, and the back room in three of the houses has a rather different character.

View along house E13.3-N with back room far from the front door

These are small spaces – only five metres² – and as we have no evidence for windows in any of the rooms, they are likely to have been very dark. None of the three back rooms has an outside wall, thus would have stayed cool during hot days and retained warmth during the very cold nights.

How were these rooms used? It is tempting to assume some were bedrooms, but none have bed alcoves familiar from larger pharaonic houses, including villa E12.10 at Amara West.

In fact, the inhabitants may have slept in the central room, warmed by the hearth. The back of one house clearly functioned as a space for ritual activity – an ancestor bust was found there.

A notable concentration of finer pottery vessels is found in these rooms – but also objects of more glamorous materials.

Plan of house E13.3-N, with room 27 to top right

In the last weeks, we have completed excavation of the back room in house E13.3-N. The pattern continues in the earliest layers in the room – fragments of a fine calcite (Egyptian alabaster) bowl were recovered alongside faience beads, a bone earring, and a faience Taweret amulet.

Fragments of a calcite bowl (F4743) found in back room of house E13.3-N

The purpose of the niche in the back wall remains unknown. But as with one other back room, we also found a large pottery vessel buried in the floor. We have taken samples from the pot, found with its lid still in place: perhaps chemical or botanical analyses can hint at the original contents?

However, a more prosaic function for these rooms is also possible. Finding objects in a room does not mean the inhabitants used them in that space, or placed them there for safe-keeping.

Some back rooms may simply have become areas in which to place unwanted rubbish – tucked out of the way at the back of the house.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , , , , , ,

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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Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud, , , , , , ,

Top of the pots

Marie Millet, College de France, Paris

Marie Millet sorting pottery in the Ramesside town

Since the first season of excavation at Amara West in 2009, I have been studying the pottery vessels from both the town and its cemeteries. I’m now getting back into the rhythm of living and working in Amara West and the island of Ernetta where the expedition house is located.

Typically, I work at the site twice a week – for an initial sorting of the masses of pottery which comes from the town – then the remainder of my time is spent in the study rooms and pottery store.

Cooking jar from 20th dynasty house, about 1130 BC (C4000)

Most of the pottery is broken into small pieces (sherds), but diagnostic fragments (rims, bases, decorated pieces, handles …) can allow us to identify the original shape of the vessels. Of course, we do also find complete vessels.

Firstly, all the pottery needs to be washed, for which we employ a local workman named Salah Mohamed Ali. Special recording sheets are then used to record the characteristics of ceramics from each individual archaeological context (pit, wall, oven, occupation layers).

The proportion of different types of vessel can provide information on the function of a room or space. For example, the middle room in a Ramesside house yielded a cooking jar but also trays for baking bread (dokka). In the middle of this room there was a fireplace and a grinding-emplacement, suggesting the space was used for food preparation.

An ancient kitchen? A plan of the room where the cooking jar was found

In contrast, the room next door, at the back of the house, yielded a small jug (C4019), of a type used for perfume or ointment, so this room may have been more private – perhaps a bedroom?

Ointment or perfume jug (C4019)

Despite much of the ceramic looking rather unimpressive, it can clarify important aspects about ancient life, including food preparation, trade patterns and also the chronology of different occupation levels.

It is crucial that the ceramic evidence is recorded accurately – both drawn and photographed. An archaeological illustrator, Elisabeth, helps out with some of the drawings. Eventually, these will be published, allowing the finds from Amara West to be compared with those from sites across Egypt and Sudan.

All of the pottery stays in our storeroom, so it is always a race against time to finish studying it. In fact, we are always playing catch-up: this week I am working on pottery from last year, while material floods in from ongoing excavations.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , , , ,

What is a Book of the Dead?

John Taylor, British Museum

I’m the curator of the exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which opens at the British Museum on 4 November 2010. The exhibition is the result of years of work behind the scenes in planning, preparation and research. It’s exciting to be able to focus on these special documents and to have the rare opportunity to display such a variety of them.

‘Book of the Dead’ is a modern term for a collection of magical spells that the Egyptians used to help them get into the afterlife. They imagined the afterlife as a kind of journey you had to make to get to paradise – but it was quite a hazardous journey so you’d need magical help along the way.

The Book of the Dead isn’t a finite text – it’s not like the Bible, it’s not a collection of doctrine or a statement of faith or anything like that – it’s a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey.

The ‘book’ is usually a roll of papyrus with lots and lots of spells written on it in hieroglyphic script. They usually have beautiful coloured illustrations as well. They would have been quite expensive so only wealthy, high-status people would have had them. Depending on how rich you were, you could either go along and buy a ready-made papyrus which would have blank spaces for your name to be written in, or you could spend a bit more and probably choose which spells you wanted.

Some of the spells are to make sure you can control your own body after death. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person was made up of different elements: body, spirit, name, heart, they’re all embodiments of a person, and they were afraid that these elements would disperse when you died. So there are a lot of spells to make sure you don’t lose your head or your heart, that your body doesn’t decay, as well as other spells about keeping alive by breathing air, having water to drink, having food to eat.

There are also spells about protecting yourself because the ancient Egyptians expected to be attacked on the journey to the afterlife by snakes, crocodiles, insects – an idea very much based on the threats they knew in real life only much more frightening and much more dangerous.

As well as the animals, you could be attacked by gods or demons who served the gods. In the next world there are a lot of gods who are guarding gateways that you have to get through, and if you don’t give the right answers to their questions at the gates, they can attack you because they have knives and snakes in their hands.

Without the correct spells to protect you, you could be punished in a variety of ways: you could be put on to the slaughter block, you could be decapitated, or you could be turned upside down (which meant your digestive process worked in reverse so you had to eat faeces and drink urine forever!).

The worst thing that can happen is what is called the second death. This meant you were killed and your spirit couldn’t come back and so you would have no afterlife at all.

It was a world of great fear that they believed they were going into, and the Book of the Dead provided guidance and protection on this journey.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing regularly about the aspects of the exhibition that I’m most excited about – and there’ll also be updates from some of the many people working on the exhibition behind the scenes here at the British Museum.

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, , , ,

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To start the week, here's the next three gallery spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Rooms 57–59 are the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Galleries of the Ancient Levant. This pic is of Room 59. The Ancient Levant corresponds to the modern states of Syria (western part), Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Rooms 57–59 present the material culture of the region from the Neolithic farmers of the 8th millennium BC to the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, within the context of major historical events.
Objects on display illustrate the continuity of the Canaanite culture of the southern Levant throughout this period. They highlight the indigenous origins of both the Israelites and the Phoenicians.
The display compares this culture with that of the peoples of central inland Syria, the Amorites and the Aramaeans. To start the week, here's the next three gallery spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Rooms 57–59 are the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Galleries of the Ancient Levant. This pic is of Room 58. The Ancient Levant corresponds to the modern states of Syria (western part), Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Rooms 57–59 present the material culture of the region from the Neolithic farmers of the 8th millennium BC to the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, within the context of major historical events.
Objects on display illustrate the continuity of the Canaanite culture of the southern Levant throughout this period. They highlight the indigenous origins of both the Israelites and the Phoenicians.
The display compares this culture with that of the peoples of central inland Syria, the Amorites and the Aramaeans. To start the week, here's the next three gallery spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Rooms 57–59 are the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Galleries of the Ancient Levant. This pic is of Room 57. The Ancient Levant corresponds to the modern states of Syria (western part), Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Rooms 57–59 present the material culture of the region from the Neolithic farmers of the 8th millennium BC to the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, within the context of major historical events.
Objects on display illustrate the continuity of the Canaanite culture of the southern Levant throughout this period. They highlight the indigenous origins of both the Israelites and the Phoenicians.
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