A Rare Ancient Egyptian Shroud in Norwich

Author FAYE KALLONIATIS delves into the story of one of the many fascinating objects from the Egyptian collection at Norwich Castle Museum – a crumpled textile shroud which turned out to have a captivating story to tell.

The linen arrived at the museum in this crumpled condition. © Norfolk Museums Service

For nearly a century, Norwich Castle Museum has had in its Egyptian collection an ancient textile that has intrigued and baffled curators. The crumpled state in which it arrived at the museum meant that it couldn’t be investigated in any meaningful way. It wasn’t until 2011 that the shroud finally revealed its history – and what a history that turned out to be!

How the shroud was acquired

In 1921, the town clerk of Norwich received a letter from two sisters, Ethel and Helen Colman, offering their collection of Egyptian antiquities to the city museum. The collection was large – over 250 antiquities – and it had been bought when the sisters, together with their father, Jeremiah James as well as other members of the family, were in Egypt – an occasion that turned out to be a sad one. Their brother, Alan, who suffered from a respiratory disease, had been encouraged to winter in Egypt’s warm and dry climate. He travelled there in the latter part of 1896 and was then joined by his family later that year. The Colmans spent several months travelling in Egypt – from Giza and then on to Luxor, where Jeremiah purchased his antiquities. However, the time in Luxor was cut tragically short as Alan died within days of arriving there. Following his death the Colmans had no appetite to remain but set sail along the Nile towards Cairo and left Egypt taking with them their newly-acquired collection.

Conservators examining the linen on its arrival at the British Museum.
© Norfolk Museums Service and the Trustees of the British Museum.

This collection, which included the textile, was donated to Norwich Castle Museum in 1921. In the museum the linen lay in a box not much larger than a shoe box, and so it remained throughout the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Then, in 2011, I decided it was time that something be done so that the hieroglyphs, which tantalisingly covered the textile’s surface, could be exposed and give some account of the exact nature of this textile.

Conserving the textile

I approached the British Museum for help in conserving the linen and – to cut a long story short – they agreed. So, the textile was taken to London where the lengthy process of unrolling it and stabilizing it began [image 2]. All of this work happened within a specially-constructed plastic tent set up within the conservation studio to help control the humidity – an aspect of vital importance for a fabric in danger of falling apart once anyone started to work on it.



All photographs © Norfolk Museums Service and the Trustees of the British Museum.

New discoveries

A few weeks later, the conservators suggested I come to see what they’d been doing and with great excitement I set off for London not knowing what to expect. On arrival I was ushered into the plastic tent to be greeted by a fabric which had now grown to a length of 1.6 metres. As suspected, hieroglyphs covered its entire surface. Most were written in black pigment but a few columns were in red – and, looking more closely, one red section was further highlighted by a patch of white pigment. It was quickly clear why this area had been given prominence – it contained a king’s cartouche in which the name of the pharaoh, Menkaure, was written. As had been suspected, the fabric was indeed a shroud and the inscriptions were texts from the funerary Book of the Dead.

The cartouche of the pharaoh, Menkaure, builder of one of the pyramids at Giza.
© Norfolk Museums Service and the Trustees of the British Museum.

The keeper at the British Museum, Dr John Taylor, also visited the studio and made an important discovery. He found not only the owner’s name – a woman called Ipu – but also her mother’s, Mutresti. The texts allowed the shroud to be dated to the 17th/early 18th dynasty (c 1550 BC). This made it a rare example because only around 30 shrouds of that date are known world-wide. This created huge excitement within the museum – but more was to follow.

A royal concubine?

John Taylor came back a short time later to say that he had located three further fragments of the same shroud. They were all inscribed with Ipu’s name as well as her mother’s. These pieces turned out not to be in Britain but in Cairo, and they’d been translated back in the 1990s. Piecing all of the fragments together some interesting details emerged. Ipu’s title, not included on the Norwich fragment, was given on the Cairo fragments. She was titled ‘khekeret nsw’ which in the past was translated as the ‘king’s concubine’ but which these days is more accurately translated as ‘lady in waiting’. Essentially, she was a lady of high birth and well connected to the royal court.

An unplundered royal reburial site

Another detail which emerged was to do with the rediscovery of Ipu’s shroud in modern times. It had been bought by the Colmans in Luxor during February 1897. Other than that, nothing else was known about its provenance or how the Luxor dealer had obtained it. However, the Cairo fragments had a clearer provenance. They are believed to have come from the so-called Royal Cache. This was an extensive reburial – by the priests of Amun in antiquity (c 1000 BC) – of many royal coffins for safe keeping at a time when these tombs were being plundered for their valuables. The new burial chamber had remained untouched and unknown until 1871, when it was rediscovered quite by accident by a local man named Rassoul. His account was that, while grazing his goat, the animal had fallen down a deep shaft and in going to its rescue he’d discovered the cavernous tomb filled with royal coffins. Rassoul never alerted the authorities and for about 10 years would visit and revisit the tomb taking out grave goods which he would sell on to antiquities dealers. Only after some questioning by the authorities did Rassoul admit to his extraordinary discovery. Once the existence of the tomb was known, the authorities quickly cleared it and transported all the antiquities to Cairo.

It is, I think, fair to say that the unrolling of the Norwich shroud was like the opening of Aladdin’s cave – it revealed a hitherto unknown treasure – and what a treasure that was!

The Egyptian Collection at Norwich Castle Museum
Catalogue and Essays
By Faye Kalloniatis

A full catalogue and essays on the Egyptian collection at Norwich Castle Museum, containing over 400 objects.