British Museum blog

Conserving an ancient Egyptian shroud

Melina Plottu, textile conservation intern, British Museum

Stitching the semi-transparent net to the cotton below to avoid stitching through the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Stitching the semi-transparent net to the cotton below to avoid stitching through the shroud. © 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

As an intern in the textile studio of the British museum, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on the Norwich shroud conservation project. This began in January, and I have been working with the team since the very beginning, participating in all the stages of the conservation treatment.

With decisions about how to conserve the shroud made, we could begin to plan the details of the work.

We first had to make the shroud’s final support board. We used a thick, acid free card that has a honeycomb structure inside. This makes it a very strong but light material, and perfect to use as a large carrying board. We covered it with a brushed cotton fabric to give it a slightly soft padding, and on top of that with a cotton fabric dyed to a neutral beige colour chosen by the team.

Covering the acid-free final support board with cotton fabrics. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Covering the acid-free final support board with cotton fabrics. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Next was the small matter of transferring the shroud onto the board. The handling and moving of a large, fragmentary and fragile textile is not straightforward and needs to be carried out like a military manœuvre.

We needed to get it in the right position on its support board straight away, because once it was on it, the nap of the cotton fabric would grip the shroud fragments and prevent us from moving it around.

Essentially we had to do a double flip to turn the textile over so that it was lying face down, and then back again onto the prepared support board. Each time the textile was sandwiched between rigid support boards to keep it in position.

Sandwiching the shroud, which is upside down, in between its temporary and final support boards. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Sandwiching the shroud, which is upside down, in between its temporary and final support boards. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

We put the shroud on its temporary board in exactly the position we wanted it to be on its final support board, measuring in from the edges to ensure it was centred. The prepared final support board was then placed face down, resting directly on the shroud, with the corners of the two boards meeting exactly. The edges of the two support boards were clipped together, and the whole assemblage was turned as quickly as possible.

Melina Plottu preparing dye solutions for our colour samples. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Melina Plottu preparing dye solutions for our colour samples. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

To secure the shroud to the board without stitching through it, we lay a piece of dyed nylon net. It took over 15 sample dyes to find a colour for the net which least affected the appearance of the shroud, the texts in particular. We viewed the samples under all varieties of lighting conditions and from all angles, and finally got a colour we were all happy with.

A semi-transparent net, dyed to be nearly invisible once in contact with the textile, is laid over the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

A semi-transparent net, dyed to be nearly invisible once in contact with the textile, is laid over the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The three layers of fabric – that is, the cotton covering the support board, the shroud, and the net, were then secured together with stitches. By stitching through the thousands of small holes in the shroud, we anchor the semi transparent net to the cotton below, and thereby avoid stitching through the actual shroud itself. We use fine silk thread and curved needles that are normally used in surgery.

A fine curved needle, designed for use in surgery, is used for the stitching. A plait of monofilament silk thread can be seen in the background with the individual threads we use sticking out. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

A fine curved needle, designed for use in surgery, is used for the stitching. A plait of monofilament silk thread can be seen in the background with the individual threads we use sticking out. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

As we stitch, we have to ensure each thread is aligned in the direction of the weave as best is possible. This delicate work took over four weeks and at times three people were working on different areas simultaneously.

We are still completing this stage of the conservation treatment so it will be ready in time for the next Norwich Shroud Study Day, held at Norwich Castle Museum on May 24. When we’re done, the shroud will be stabilised and can be admired by the public on display or loan. I hope they will take as much pleasure in viewing the object as the team had working on it.

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