British Museum blog

What can we do to preserve an ancient Egyptian shroud?

Nicole Rode, textile conservator, 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

Now we’ve worked with curators and scientists to (safely) get as much information as we can, it’s time to ensure the next stage of the shroud’s life, as a studied and enjoyed museum artefact, doesn’t cause it to deteriorate.

The shroud fully opened up from its original bundle © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

The shroud fully opened up from its original bundle © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum.

So what are our options? After opening up the shroud, one option would be to leave it exactly like this and simply put it into good storage. As long as it was on a carrying board, stored flat in dark place, like a drawer unit, it would be fairly stable and allow for occasional study by individual scholars.

Leaving the textile in this state, however, completely prevents the many other roles the shroud might be asked to perform: it would really be too vulnerable for extensive study, and certainly wouldn’t be able to go on display, or be shipped to national and international venues for loan. In light of this we decided we needed to go further in stabilising it.

There is no one way to treat an archaeological textile – they are all made differently, come to the studio in different conditions, and have different end roles. Thus a treatment that suits one shroud will not necessarily suit another. With the NMAS conservators, we began by first looking at what techniques had been successfully used in the past – senior conservators at the British Museum including Monique Pullan, Pippa Cruickshank and Anna Harrison have treated numerous Egyptian textiles such as the shroud of Resti , and the shroud for a unknown person that was recently displayed in the exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian book of the dead.

This was too fragile to support its own weight, so it has been stitched onto a cotton fabric with fine monofilament silk.

This was too fragile to support its own weight, so it has been stitched onto a cotton fabric with fine monofilament silk.

Some fragile textiles can be supported underneath with woven fabrics secured with stitching, such as an Egyptian tunic on display in Room 66. Where the needle might cause damage, for example by making holes through a painted area of a shroud, we might choose to adhere it to a support fabric or fine paper with conservation-grade adhesives, such as the shroud of Amenhotep. But we don’t rush to use adhesives as they are harder to remove in the long-term.

In other cases we use a combination of techniques – for example the shroud with a bead net, on display in Room 63, uses both small adhesive patches and stitched support (the detailed conservation records of all these shrouds can be read on the Museum’s collection online).

This shroud was conserved for display by using a combination of small conservation-grade adhesive patches adhered to its reverse and an overall stitched support. It is on display in Room 63.

This shroud was conserved for display by using a combination of small conservation-grade adhesive patches adhered to its reverse and an overall stitched support. It is on display in Room 63.

The important principle that we abide by in any conservation treatment is that of ‘minimal intervention’ – we try to apply the least amount necessary to make an object safe. We also ensure that what we do does not unwittingly destroy information about the object that has yet to be revealed – or alter its appearance in any way that can’t be reversed.

Because the shroud was so fragmentary and vulnerable, we suggested that it was mounted on a rigid support board. This would prevent any damage caused by flexing the aged fibres, and at the same time would provide a good means of handling and displaying it. Luckily the shroud proved to be of a size that can be kept fully opened.

Because of the relative softness of the fibres, the numerous holes in the shroud, the looseness of the weave structure, and the fact that there were no brittle areas, we decided a stitched support would be the most suitable conservation option. Specifically, we would sandwich the shroud between two support fabrics – a solid cotton backing and a fine semi-transparent net. By stitching them together, they would hold all the damaged sections in place most securely, which was especially important if it were ever to go on vertical display or travel on loan.

One of the strongest advantages of this sandwich technique is that much less stitching is done through the actual historic textile. Another advantage is that it’s removable – the possibility of reversal is one of the central tenets of conservation. Also, if the net is dyed to the right colour, it will be virtually invisible – there are many textiles in the Museum’s Egyptian galleries that have net overlays that are very discreet – specifically on the shroud of a youth and the shroud with a bead net, both on display in Room 63.

Last but not least, providing appropriate environmental conditions is integral to the long-term preservation of this remarkable textile. This includes the conditions in which it is stored and displayed – for example ensuring the light levels on display are controlled to prevent fading, and the humidity is at an appropriate level to prevent mould growth or desiccation.

With the treatment strategy decided, we can now begin to look at the details.

In the next post we’ll show you the action – dyeing the right colour of net, the tiny eye surgery needles we use for stitching, our invisible silk threads and how we get the shroud onto its rigid board in less than two seconds!

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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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See this incredible Art Car as part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens 27 October 2016. You can book your tickets now by following the link in our bio.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
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