Dr. Margaret Maitland, senior curator of ancient Mediterranean collections at the National Museums Scotland, was poring over stores of ancient Egyptian artifacts when she discovered a mysterious parcel wrapped in brown paper. Attached to the package—slipped inside a WWII service envelope—was a note from a former curator, who wrote that the contents of the package had come from an Egyptian tomb. When conservators opened the parcel, the BBC reports, they found a colorful, 2,000-year-old burial shroud that had lain forgotten in the museum for some 80 years.
Unfurling the textile was a painstaking process. Conservators humidified the shroud to soften its brittle fibers, and then gradually unfolded it over the course of 24 hours. But this slow process paid off. Even after being packed away in the archives for decades, the shroud remained in good condition. The find was a “curator’s dream,” Maitland said in a statement.
The painted shroud depicts the deceased as Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld. A hieroglyphic inscription identifies the shroud’s owner as the son of an official named Montsuef and his wife Tanuat. Though the man was not previously known to researchers, his parents’ deaths were recorded in 9 B.C. Based on this information, curators dated the shroud to Egypt’s Roman era, which began in 30 B.C.
In ancient Egypt, burial shrouds were typically wrapped around dead bodies after mummification. They became particularly important during the Roman period, as the use of coffins declined. Maitland tells Smithsonian.com via email that the design of the recently uncovered shroud is “unusual,” and seems to mark a transition between Ptolemaic burial shawls—which were typically beaded—and the advent of Roman-style shrouds.
“While the motifs are traditionally Egyptian, the attempts at shading and modeling the face are evidence of the increasing influence of classical portraiture in the Roman era, perhaps perceived as helpful in bringing the deceased back to life,” Maitland explained.
According to Maitland, the shroud was first unearthed in 1857, during an excavation of a tomb in the ancient city of Thebes. The tomb had been built in 1290 B.C.—not long after the reign of Tutankhamun— for a “chief of police” and his wife, according to the National Museum of Scotland. The tomb was looted and reused multiple times over the course of 1000 years, before being sealed in the first century A.D. It remained undisturbed until the excavation in the 19th century.
After its discovery, the shroud “went directly into collection of the former National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, which eventually became amalgamated with National Museums Scotland,” Maitland explained. “It was during this transfer that the shroud's provenance and significance was forgotten.”
Now, the shroud will be given pride of place at the National Museums Scotland. It will be displayed alongside other funerary objects from the Thebes tomb in a new exhibit aptly titled “The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial.”