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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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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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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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
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