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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See this work on loan from @themuseumofmodernart in our #AmericanDream exhibition – follow the link in our bio to book tickets.

Edward Ruscha (b. 1937), Standard Station. Screenprint, 1966. @themuseumofmodernart New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

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You can see some of his prints in our upcoming #AmericanDream exhibition – book your tickets by following the link in our bio.

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Gumball Machine. Colour linocut, 1970. © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016.
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