British Museum blog

A new look at ancient Egyptian textiles

textile fragmentAmandine Mérat (Curator) and Emily Taylor (Museum Assistant), British Museum

We have recently taken the opportunity to audit, document and re-house the textiles dating to the 1st millenium AD – around 1,800 in number – that are looked after by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (AES). The main aims of this project are the re-organisation and distribution of the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic textiles into a coherent and accessible storage system, along with the improvement of their documentation by adding photographs, technical analysis, iconographic and cultural information.

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870).  Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870). Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

As in many museums today, the British Museum’s Egyptian textiles collection is mostly composed of fragmentary pieces, acquired through excavation and purchase in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, decorative elements considered as spectacular or aesthetically pleasing were often cut out from large pieces when discovered, as only the most vibrant and colourful pieces were wanted by European collectors. However, this meant that they were also cut off from their archaeological contexts. It was for this reason that, with the exception of two great sets of textiles from excavations at Qasr Ibrim and Wadi Sarga, we decided to reorder the Museum’s collection not by provenance or date – as these are rarely known – but by technique. Indeed, a close visual examination of technique, and drawing on knowledge of their cultural background, allows us to determine the possible original function of many of the textiles, essentially fragments of garments and home furnishing originating from burial contexts.

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

We began our audit by classifying the textiles by their primary weaving technique – tapestry, brocade, embroidery etc. This process helped us to work out how much storage space was required for each group, taking into account the fragility of the textiles, but also the need for easy access and the possibility of new items joining the collection at a later date. Each primary group was then sub-divided, on the basis of shape or iconography of the textiles.

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Drawer by drawer, the technical and iconographic analyses for each textile were completed by Amandine Merat, the curator responsible for the project. Some pieces had already been studied by Hero Granger-Taylor in the 1990s; in those cases, her detailed notes were checked and annotated where necessary. However, a great majority of the textiles had never been analysed before. For these, the fibres were identified, measurements were taken, techniques carefully analysed and a complete description of the piece and its iconography was made. Original function of the textiles and dating were re-attributed where necessary.

Once the technical information was recorded, the textiles were photographed by Emily Taylor. A general shot of front and back was taken, an arrow included to indicate the direction of the warp of the fabric. Detailed macro shots were then taken to record any small details or highlight interesting elements of design, use or technique. The textiles were then re-housed in acid free tissue, and melinex sleeves where possible, and then placed on Correx boards within their storage drawers to enable ease of handling.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

All relevant information was recorded in a spreadsheet by our volunteer Ruiha Smalley, before being standardised and uploaded into the British Museum’s collection database, through which it will soon be available to the public via the collection online.

The post was updated on 24 June to correct a date in the first sentence. The textiles date to the 1st millennium AD, not BC.


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The Beau Street Hoard: Not quite the end… conservation, outreach and further investigations

replica of coin block before conservation
Hazel Gardiner, Metals Conservator, British Museum

The soil block after excavation of the hoard and prior to dismantling and return to the archaeologists who carried out the excavation.

The soil block after excavation of the hoard and prior to dismantling and return to the archaeologists who carried out the excavation.

For those who have been following the progress of the conservation of the Beau Street Hoard on the blog, I am delighted to announce that all the coins – around 17,500 of them – have now been cleaned to required identification standards, that is, to the point where the legend and significant features are readable. Conservator Julia Tubman carried out the bulk of this work on the c.17,500 coins contained within the hoard. Additional work has been carried out on a small number of these coins and conservation has also been carried out on c.400 coins that were initial finds from the outer edges of the hoard, before the hoard proper was unearthed. This last group of coins were in particularly poor condition and most required substantial chemical and manual cleaning. These coins were held in numbered paper envelopes, some of which corresponded to small find numbers allocated when the hoard was excavated.

Envelopes containing initial coin finds associated with the Beau Street Hoard

Envelopes containing initial coin finds associated with the Beau Street Hoard

The soil block that held the hoard has now been dismantled and returned to the archaeologists who carried out the initial excavation for final sifting and checking for palaeoenvironmental remains: that is, material that might provide further contextual information about the coin hoard.

A washed but otherwise untreated coin from surface scatter coins showing the thick cuprite (copper oxide) layer obscuring the surface.

A washed but otherwise untreated coin from surface scatter coins showing the thick cuprite (copper oxide) layer obscuring the surface.

At the time of Julia’s last post, she reported that one of the coin clusters (bag 4), had been scanned. As with the other coins in the hoard, the clustered corroded coins retained the positions that they would have held in the bag in which they had been deposited. In this instance the bag shape was particularly well preserved. The initial scan was carried out at the British Museum by Martin Cooper of the Conservation Technologies Unit, National Museums Liverpool (NML). The scan data was used to create a 3D computer model, which was then 3D printed to make a replica of the coin bag using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a process that uses a laser to fuse particles of plastic or other material into the required three-dimensional form. A plaster cast was then made from the print and this was painted to resemble the original coin cluster, by conservators at NML.

replica of excavated coin block

The replica of bag 4

The replica has proved very popular among visitors to the Roman Baths and was shown at a Beau Street Hoard community consultation event run by staff at the Roman Baths earlier in 2013. Members of Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association (BEMSCA) were among those who handled the replica. As a three-dimensional record of the original form of the coin bag, which of course no longer exists now that the coins have been conserved, the replica is an excellent supplement to the information gathered about the hoard, an invaluable means of allowing people to gain some sense of the physicality of (at least part) of the hoard.

Further exciting news is the forthcoming analysis of what appear to be animal skin remains from the bags used to store the coins. In one of Julia’s earlier posts she noted that traces of what appeared to be skin product, preserved by metal corrosion products, were found on the outside of each cluster of coins, suggesting that leather bags may have been used to house the coins. Professor Matthew Collins and colleagues at BioArCh (University of York), are hoping to extract collagen from the samples provided and to identify the species of animal skin used. Identification of the animal species will be made by peptide mass fingerprinting, an analytical technique for protein identification. We look forward to hearing the results of their investigations.

Possible skin product preserved by corrosion products from the coin beneath.

Possible skin product preserved by corrosion products from the coin beneath.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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The Vikings are coming…

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery
Tom Williams, Project Curator: Vikings, British Museum

Several years ago I worked at the Tower of London. Spending long periods of time within a building of such age, I would often start to wonder about how the area would have looked before the castle was built. Every morning I would pass the remains of Roman walls at Tower Bridge station, walls that were repaired and refortified by King Alfred the Great in response to the very real threat of Viking raids from the river. Blotting out the great hulk of HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the modern office blocks that now crowd the banks, I would try to imagine the awe and the terror that a Londoner would have felt a thousand years ago, standing on the city walls, watching the carved and gilded prows of dragon ships silently gliding up the Thames. Viking fleets and armies raided and besieged the city on numerous occasions, and the river has given up dozens of weapons that might have ended up there as a result of those conflicts.

Iron axe-head found in the Thames at Hammersmith, Viking, 10th-11th century (1909,0626.8)

Iron axe-head found in the Thames at Hammersmith, Viking, 10th-11th century (1909,0626.8)

Exactly 1000 years ago, in January 1014, people living in England would have been looking to the year ahead with a great deal of uncertainty. A Danish Viking, Svein Forkbeard, sat on the English throne. He had taken it by force only a few weeks previously, having forced the submission of the English nobility and towns. He would die, suddenly, on the 3rd of February. But a fleet of Danish ships still lay menacingly off the English coast, and on board one of those ships was Svein’s son, Cnut, later to rule England as part of the greatest north sea empire the world would ever know.

This January, a Danish warship – Roskilde 6 – has returned to England and has taken up residence in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, my current place of work. Happily, the dark days of the eleventh century are behind us, and the team from the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) who accompanied the ship to London have not (so far) demanded any tribute or burned any villages. In fact, getting the ship here has been part of a long period of close collaboration between the BM and the NMD (and Berlin State Museums, where Roskilde 6 will head next on its travels).

© National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

© National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

The Danish team of conservators and technicians, led by Kristiane Straetkvern, have been responsible for the conservation and analysis of the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6 (approx. 20% survives of the original ship), and for constructing the extraordinary stainless steel frame in which the timbers are displayed. This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right. The frame has been precision engineered in dozens of individual pieces which can be loaded into a single container for shipment and reassembled under the expert handling of the NMD’s installation team. The timbers are packed flat in their own climate controlled container.

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery


The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum

The finished installation is a wonderful marriage of modern Scandinavian design and engineering with one of the greatest technological achievements of the Viking Age: at over 37 metres long, Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and would have been massive even by the standards of around AD 1025, its probable date of construction. It would have taken huge amounts of manpower and raw materials to construct the ship, resources only available to the most powerful of northern rulers. It may even have been built by Cnut himself…

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend opens at the British Museum on 6 March 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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The Beau Street Hoard: counting ancient money

Beau Street HoardEleanor Ghey and Henry Flynn, British Museum

If you listen carefully outside the Department of Coins and Medals at the moment you may hear the chink of money being counted. It’s not a surprise donation or a lottery win, but Roman coins from the Beau Street Hoard being sorted into imperial reign, bag by bag, to obtain an idea of the date and contents of the hoard.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

We collected the coins from conservator Julia Tubman in stages, as each bag was removed from the soil block the hoard was found in. Some are surprisingly heavy, about as much as I can lift comfortably. The silver coins have a pleasing weight in the hand and do not look over 1,700 years old.

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation taken at the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences. © University of Southampton

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation taken at the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences. © University of Southampton

The next stage of our work is to provide information on the hoard so it can be given a provisional valuation as part of the Treasure process. The hoard has already been declared Treasure at inquest under the Treasure Act 1996. Now the coins are almost all separate and reasonably clean, it will be possible for an independent expert to do this. As museum curators, we do not have expertise in questions of commercial value but we provide a listing of the contents. The provisional value is then considered by the Treasure Valuation Committee, which recommends a final value. The purchasing museum (in this case the Roman Baths Museum) is then able to raise funds for this amount, from which a reward is paid to interested parties (usually the finder and landowner) as applicable.

The results so far…

We have been able to sort and count seven of the eight Roman money bags contained within the hoard – one is still undergoing conservation. The total so far is 14,646 coins, but as the final bag is large we expect this to go up to over 16,000 coins.

A table showing the different types and amounts of coins in the hoard

A table showing the different types and amounts of coins in the hoard

In my previous post I described the three different types of coins in the hoard (denarii and early (silvery) and later (debased) radiates). With these three types of coins one might expect a wide date range between the bags. This has not been the case. We have the very latest denarii and late silver radiates, so that the bags could have been deposited within 20 to 30 years of each other (or sorted and re-deposited together). At the moment, the latest coins in the hoard date to the mid AD 270s quite precisely.

Parts of the hoard and some of the tools used by conservator Julia Tubman to excavate it on display

Parts of the hoard and some of the tools used by conservator Julia Tubman to excavate it on display

A conservation-themed display of the Beau Street Hoard is now on show in Case seven of the Citi Money Gallery. This case focuses on Treasure and hoarding and features a changing display intended to highlight new or exciting Treasure finds. The Beau Street display focuses on the excavation of the soil block and subsequent cleaning of the coins by Julia Tubman.

The content of the hoard is represented by three piles of coins – one pile of each denomination found in the moneybags – and the seven-week process of excavation and cleaning is illustrated using time-lapse video footage of the removal of the coins from the soil block.

An X-ray image, which provided the first visual evidence of the grouping of the coins and acted as a guide for the excavation, is also featured in the video. Some of the tools used by Julia during this process are displayed alongside the coins which have been cleaned for identification.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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The tale of a tapestry



Maggie Wood, Keeper of Social History,
Warwickshire Museum Service

The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire was woven in the 1590s, and was one of a set of four tapestry maps made to hang in Ralph Sheldon’s house in south Warwickshire.

It’s a rare and wonderful pictorial representation of Elizabethan Warwickshire – a bird’s eye view of Shakespeare’s landscape.

Before arrival at the British Museum for the exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, the tapestry has spent over a year undergoing conservation. This work has enabled us to get close to the tapestry, and make exciting discoveries!

Removing the old lining revealed the vibrant original colour – it was very green! Light has faded the yellow colour from the green wool, so that the tapestry front now looks blue instead of green.

Original green and yellow on reverse of tapestry, contrasted with faded colour on the front

The tapestry’s border was replaced in the 17th century. Removing the lining revealed fragments of the original Elizabethan border – much more lively and colourful than the later replacement.

Original tapestry border

In April 2011, the tapestry went to Belgium to be wet-cleaned. De Wit is a famous tapestry workshop which has developed a safe and fast method of wet-cleaning large textiles. The Sheldon Tapestry was washed, rinsed and dried in one day!

Water samples taken during the wet-cleaning, with dirtiest on left!

Gently sponging the tapestry during wet-cleaning

Wet-cleaning didn’t restore the original bright colour, lost through light damage, but it did make tiny details easier to see.

The Rollright Stones, a Neolithic monument built at a similar time to Stonehenge, appear on the tapestry in the lower right corner. They are very hard to spot!
This is probably the first known visual depiction of this ancient site.

Rollright Stones – just below the windmill

We’ve now noticed that this bear’s claws are blue and that there are many tiny cottages hidden in the Forest of Arden.

Left: Bear with blue claws Right: Cottage in the Forest of Arden

We have made many new and fascinating discoveries during the last year, which has helped to build our knowledge of this wonderful object and its history.

Raising the tapestry into place with pulleys

See related article published 30 August 2012 in The Art Newspaper: Ancient Stones revealed on tapestry (This information was added on 13 September 2012)

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

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Amara West 2012: preserving ancient basketry, textiles and wood


Philip Kevin, British Museum

Many objects discovered in the cemetery at Amara West require conservation to even allow them to be lifted, as they cannot support their own weight without consolidation.

This is particularly true with organic material, which tends to be poorly preserved in the burial conditions here. In addition to natural degradation through desiccation and the effects of termites, disturbance by looters (ancient and modern) has left objects in a very fragile condition.

Tools of the trade: consolidating fragile organic remains

Tools of the trade: consolidating fragile organic remains

The roofs of the burial chambers were often collapsed as looters entered to gain access to grave contents. The resulting fall of sharp schist gravel ripped through and crushed much of what lay below, including the coffin found in grave G309. Careful excavations by Åshild Vågene revealed traces of wood and plaster.

Tight working conditions: preparing to lift the bed in G314

Tight working conditions: preparing to lift the bed in G314

These coffins are constructed from wood onto which a thin layer of plaster is applied to all surfaces; this is then painted, and in some cases varnished with a plant resin. Our two coffin fragments (of 20cm by 10cm) had only tiny traces of the internal plaster remaining, but pieces of crumbly wood were still in place. The outer plaster skin has survived in better condition, and is painted.

In order to impart some strength to allow the pieces to be lifted, I started by strengthening the wood and plaster with a mixture of solvent and a synthetic adhesive. It was impossible to remove the fine sand and soil without losing original wood and plaster; even using a small blower would cause some plaster to disappear in a cloud of white dust.

Having consolidated the wood and plaster, an additional support was attached to the back (inside of the coffin) and the fragments were then lifted and returned to the expedition house where they await further treatment.

In another grave being excavated by Laurel Engbring and Michaela Binder, fragments of a Nubian-style funerary bed and a basket were revealed, and I treated them in a similar manner before lifting. A fragment of textile (approximately 10cm2) was also conserved in this grave, offering a rare chance to study the weaving technique used.

This is my first time in Sudan, and it has been fantastic – except when I missed my step clambering out of the boat in the 6.30am darkness, and ended up in the Nile.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

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St Baudime reliquary arrives at the Museum

By James Robinson, Exhibition Curator

Today the installation began in earnest with the placing of one of the most significant and compelling reliquaries of the exhibition. The statue reliquary of St Baudime had never left France before its inclusion in the Treasures of Heaven exhibition. It’s normally kept in the church of St Nectaire deep in the Auvergne in the centre of France where, sadly, relatively few people have seen it.

Statue reliquary of St Baudime in the church of St Nectair, Auvergne, France

Imagine the excitement when the packing case was opened and the eyes of this exceptional figure were exposed again to the light. The eyes were designed to hold the gaze of the onlooker and still command attention today. Made of ivory, horn and wax, they are slightly mobile and move in their sockets – a miracle of medieval technology. The beautifully expressive hands were made to extend benediction and welcome. The right hand may have once held a phial of the saint’s blood. Despite its remarkable delicacy, its solid walnut core makes it extraordinarily heavy and it required concentrated effort to place it safely in its display case.

The reliquary arrives at the British Museum and is carefully removed from its crate and prepared for conservation work.

Although this reliquary of St Baudime has always remained in France and has stirred rarely from the church it was made to furnish, it has experienced its fair share of trauma. The settings for the jewels that once adorned the figure are now almost all empty, robbed of their riches at the time of the French Revolution. Later, the reliquary itself was stolen by the infamous Thomas brothers in May 1907 but was recovered in a wine cellar!

A slideshow showing every step of the installation is now online.

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Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

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Working with Chinese master scroll-mounters

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Conservation work in progress at the Shanghai Museum

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

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

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

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

Conservators hard at work

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

Some of the tools used for mounting

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

Mixing the paste for mounting

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

The conservation studio with hanging scrolls on the walls

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

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

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Piecing together the Chiseldon cauldrons puzzle

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin working on one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

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

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

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

One of the Chiseldon cauldrons before being unwrapped

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

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

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

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

Fragments of one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

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

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

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

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

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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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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