Ancient Egyptian Mummy Wrappings:
Fragments of linen bandages from a rock-cut tomb
These densely woven scraps of linen are certainly the oldest textiles that I have ever had the chance to touch and examine.
Knowing that I'm interested in clothing and textiles of all sorts, my friend brought me a rather unusual present back from her trip to Egypt. No, not a gallebaya, or a dodgy belly dance outfit, but some genuine fragments of mummy wrappings!
They're just scraps - you wouldn't look at them twice if you saw them out of context. But there's something amazing about any textile that has survived so long, and of course there's a fascination to materials that have been used to make an Egyptian mummy!
Fragments of linen mummy wrappings, found outside tombs in Egypt's Western Desert
A close-up showing the denseness and even-ness of the weaving
You're probably wondering how my friend came across them, and how she knows that they're the real thing? Well, they're certainly genuine! She found them on a sand dune below a rocky outcrop full of rock-cut tombs, a few miles west of Siwa Oasis.
A rocky outcrop in Egypt's Western desert, near Siwa Oasis. It was used as a place of burial in ancient times
The cliff is riddled with rock-cut tombs, all of which have been ransacked by modern day 'tomb raiders'
All the tombs appeared to have been broken into and ransacked. There were masses of bits of broken pots, mummy bandages and wrappings, and even human bones scattered down the dunes below the tombs. Possibly this had happened quite recently (my friend was there in early 2010) as there was such a lot of material still visible across the dune. Whoever did it was no doubt looking for jewellery, amulets and shabti - things they could easily sell.
Mummy wrappings strewn around on the sand dune below the tombs. Yes, the white objects are human bones!
More linen mummy wrapping fragments in the entrance to one of the tombs
A close-up of a large piece of linen. You can see discolouring in the lower right corner. Possibly bitumen stains?
My friend says that she hesitated about taking anything, but that there was so much that she couldn't resist a few fragments of the linen wrappings. Also, her guide pointed out that anything she didn't take would either disintegrate in the sun and the wind, or be taken by the next people to visit. There are so many small tombs in the desert, he said, that unless there are intact mummies or - especially - gold (!), the officials and archaeologists aren't interested.
Unsurprisingly, the fragments she brought home for me are fragile, and disintegrate a little more every time I touch them. As you can see in the photos below, while some are pale coloured, others are quite dark. Possibly they are stained with the bitumen, which was apparently used as a glue during the mummy wrapping process.
The fragments separated out into pale and darker pieces
The paler fragments are still quite soft. The large piece measures about 25cm unstretched
The darker fragments are stiffer and more brittle
Mummy wrappings and shrouds were held in place with linen ties, so I wonder if the thin strip of the darker linen is the remnants of such a tie?
A thin strip of linen, bound with threads - possible a cord to tie the mummy wrappings together?
I assume that all the fragments are linen, as that seems to have been the standard Egyptian textile (flax was a major crop along the Nile - this website gives a great overview of Egyptian use of flax, linen and looms if you want to know more). Obviously they were woven by hand, but the weaving is straight and even, and not really distinguishable from modern machine-made textiles. Some of the pieces are more coarsely woven than others, but all are neat and dense, making me wonder, if this was the quality of mummy wrappings, then how fine were the textiles woven for actual clothing? However, the British Museum website says that mummy wrappings were often recycled from old clothing and household textiles torn into strips, so these scraps may well have had a previous use before ending up as bandages.
Unless you were rich, this recycling was probably necessary because huge amounts of fabric were used during the mummification process - around 150 metres of linen in as many as 20 layers! Pharaoh Ramses II was wrapped in about 350 yards (320 metres) of linen.
Finally, how old are these fragments likely to be? Well, my friend was told that the tombs around Siwa are not classic 'ancient Egyptian' (i.e. dating back to the times of Tutankhamen), but rather from the Ptolemeic Kingdom period (which ended with the death of Cleopatra in 30BC) and the following Roman period (30BC-390AD). So maybe not 'ancient' by Egyptian standards, but still a very impressive 2000 years old!