British Museum blog

Study, conservation and display of a rare pair of curtains from Late Antique Egypt

Project curator Amandine Mérat gives us an overview of the historical background of the curtains, whilst conservators Anna Harrison and Monique Pullan describe work carried out in order to prepare them for display.

An exceptionally well preserved pair of curtains is amongst the remarkable objects displayed in the exhibition, Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. They are said to be from Akhmim in Upper Egypt and date from the 6th–7th centuries AD. Acquired for the British Museum by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge in 1897, they are displayed here for only the second time in the Museum’s history. Made of fine linen and colourful wool, the curtains measure more than 2.7m in height by 2.1m in width, and provide a unique example of complete large scale furnishings from Late Antique Egypt.

Because of its dry climate, Egypt preserves a range and abundance of organic material that rarely survive elsewhere. This is particularly true of clothing and furnishing textiles, which provide unparalleled insight into the lives of individuals from Roman, Late Antique and early Islamic times. From the 2nd century AD, Egyptian people progressively gave up mummification, instead burying their dead in the clothes they wore in life, and sometimes wrapping them in furnishing textiles reused as funerary shrouds. This explains why the great majority of the textiles were discovered since the late 19th century in cemeteries and burial contexts. Visible staining from contact with a body suggests that these curtains were used in this way. Although they are now separate, the two textiles were originally sewn together at the top, indicating that they were probably door curtains, before being used as a shroud.

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Colourful classical Graeco-Roman motifs decorate the curtains

The curtains represent a good example of continuity and the re-use of classical themes and imagery throughout Late Antiquity, here in a demonstrably Christian context. The lower part of the curtains is ornamented with birds and vegetal motifs in floral lozenges. At the top is a decorative band containing an inhabited vine scroll, below which erotes (gods of love) holding floral garlands stand between baskets of produce. Below them, two winged nikai (victory figures) hold a wreath containing a jewelled cross with the remains of a Greek inscription. Both erotes and nikai figures come from the Classical, or Graeco-Roman, repertoire, the latter often depicted holding busts of mythological heroes or victorious emperors; later such figures were ‘re-employed’ to present the bust of Christ or other Christian symbols.

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One of the curtains before conservation in 1994

Although at first sight the curtains appear intact, on closer inspection their fragility is obvious. In particular the stained areas which had been in contact with the body are brittle with many holes. The wool motifs retain their vivid colours but sections are missing, possibly eaten by insects during burial.

The curtains were extensively conserved for the 1994 British Museum exhibition Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture. Each curtain was stitched on to new cotton fabric, applied to secure the damaged areas and attach the curtains evenly across their entirety. Working in fine silk threads, this stitching took over 200 hours to complete. The new lining strengthened the ancient textiles and made each curtain appear whole. The missing coloured wools were not replaced; one of the principal ethical guidelines for conservators is to focus on stabilising remaining original material rather than restoration of the original appearance.

In 2013 the curtains were re-assessed for their suitability for the current exhibition. As the largest and most vulnerable textiles to be selected, any conservation issues needed to be raised well in advance with the exhibition planning team. Due to their fragility, it was impossible to gather and drape the curtains as they would have been originally, as this would put too much physical stress on the ancient threads. In order to get as close to their original appearance as possible, a compromise was reached by mounting them on a board angled just off the vertical, which would give them the appearance of being upright and also give some additional support.

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Conservators checking the condition of the curtains in 2015

Examination of the curtains in preparation for the current exhibition showed that the conservation stitching worked 20 years previously was holding the textile securely in position. However, a little more work was required for this near vertical display. Extra lines of stitching were applied in the vertical direction, particularly in the less damaged areas which had not been previously stitched. The curtains were also surface cleaned using a soft sable hair brush and a special vacuum cleaner set to a low setting.

In order to attach the curtains to their fabric-covered display board, Velcro tape was stitched along the top edge of each curtain. Velcro is often used to display textiles because it ensures a continuous, even support along the top of the textile.

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Installing the curtains

During installation, each of the rolled curtains was lifted up to enable the two sides of the Velcro to be connected, also ensuring the top decorative borders were lined up correctly. The curtains were then unrolled as far as the case would allow, with the remaining rolled portion being rolled and placed underneath the support board. Each step of the installation had been planned in advance, using accurate measurements and diagrams to minimise the need for unnecessary handling of these fragile textiles. Finally, the long fringing at the top of each curtain was held in place with strips of semi-transparent net, pinned to stop it flopping forward.

Visitors to the exhibition might be surprised by how much time and effort goes on behind the scenes in order to prepare the displays. A seemingly straight forward task, such as hanging a pair of curtains, in fact required an immense amount of planning and coordination to ensure that these rare and beautiful, yet extremely fragile, textiles could take their place in this show.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

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