British Museum blog

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, , , , , , ,

5 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Alison M. says:

    Fascinating. Look forward to seeing what you find.

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  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bennu, Matthew Cock. Matthew Cock said: On the @britishmuseum blog: An ancient Egyptian textile from Norwich Castle Museum reveals its secrets… http://bit.ly/fvZsNO […]

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  3. […] 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 […]

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  4. PinHouston says:

    Is a CT scan too expensive, or not intrusive enough? One would think that surely hieroglyphs would appear in such a scan.

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    • @ PinHouston

      It would have been possible to use a CT scan to look at the folding of the textile but it would be very unlikely to reveal much of the text. The black ink used in Egypt at this time was based on carbon (usually from soot). Carbon is a very light material and is extremely difficult to image by X-radiography, particularly when applied thinly as this ink has been – we have tried to look at black ink on papyri in the past and not managed to produce anything. The red ink (usually based on iron) might have been visible but this only forms a small proportion of the text.

      Janet Ambers, Scientist, British Museum

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