It’s only natural for people to try to understand the history of mankind, which is why archeology is so important. To uncover and study pieces of our ancient history is one of the most essential ways we can learn about the past.
That’s exactly what made Dr. Margaret Maitland’s discovery so intriguing! She came across a parcel wrapped in paper while sorting through a collection at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and at first she didn’t think much of it. Then she noticed something strange…
Dr. Margaret Maitland, curator of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, was sorting through recently accepted items at the museum when she found an ordinary parcel wrapped in brown paper. It seemed to be unremarkable—that was, until she opened it…
Soon, Dr. Maitland discovered that the parcel contained an envelope. After examining the envelope, she realized that it dated back to the World War II era. When she carefully opened it, she uncovered a mysterious note from a former curator…
The note claimed that the parcel’s contents were discovered inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. That’s when Dr. Maitland realized she was holding a very special piece of history—but she’d need some help to realize what exactly she was looking at.
After assembling a group of onsite conservators, Dr. Maitland set off to figure out just what exactly this “ancient” Egyptian artifact was. She couldn’t simply take the word of the mysterious note, so her team of conservationists began analyzing the fabric inside with the utmost care.
Just unfolding the fabric took a grueling 24 hours. It was like watching history unfurl itself before their very eyes! Once opened entirely, the parcel offered “tantalizing glimpses of colorful painted details,” the conservators reported.
“None of us could have imagined the remarkable figure that would greet us when we were finally able to unroll it,” Dr. Maitland later admitted. The more her team investigated the parcel, the more they believed this find was really groundbreaking. They continued their examination…
Dr. Maitland was floored by their newly acquired artifact. “[This] shroud is a very rare object in superb condition,” she said. “[It] is executed in a highly unusual artistic style, suggestive of Roman-period Egyptian art, yet still very distinctive.”
The shroud, which was made of linen and miraculously intact, had been hand-painted with an artistic depiction of the Egyptian god of the afterlife and underworld, Osiris. It was estimated to have been completed during the Roman period.
The team then got to work in deciphering the hieroglyphs on the fabric—and they were able to identify the person who’d once been buried in it. His name was Aaemka, and he was the son of two Roman-era officials named Montsuef and Tanuat. The surprises didn’t end there!
Rolled up inside the fabric was a piece of strange brown paper. “What we found under the head were layers of the original mummy wrapping that had obviously come away when the shroud was taken off the body,” said the principal conservator, Lynn McClean.
Incredibly, the museum already had a collection, including this gold mask, from Montsuef and Tanuat on display. “It is extraordinarily rare that we have such an incredible group of objects belonging to a whole ancient Egyptian family in our collections,” Dr. Maitland said.
The tomb of Montsuef, Tanuat, and Aaemka was discovered in 1857, and archaeologists uncovered a number of incredible artifacts along with it. The golden mask was one of a few items they planned to use to help them figure out the story behind the shroud…
In addition to Montsuef’s golden mask, the National Museum of Scotland also housed this golden wreath. It was an ancient symbol of defeating death, and Montsuef had been buried with it some 2,000 years ago.
Dr. Maitland’s team believed the exhibit for Montsuef and Tanuat would make dating the newfound fabric even easier. Based on the family’s death date—around 9 B.C., they estimated the fabric to be from the first century A.D. But that wasn’t the end of their discovery…
Dr. Maitland’s team continued to research the shroud and the history of Montseuf and Tanuat’s family. What they learned changed everything! Located in modern Luxor, the tomb was prepared roughly 1,000 years before the family members’ deaths. So how were they found in it?
At the time of its creation, not long after the reign of King Tut, the Egyptian empire was experiencing its peak in terms of wealth and power. It was completely common for the highest officials to compete with one another to have the most exquisite and lavish crypts.
There was a reason why these high officials wanted to prepare the most lavish crypts; they believed that they would carry their wealth on Earth into the afterlife. So, the more jewelry and art they were buried with, the better!
Somewhat surprisingly, before the tomb belonged to Montsuef, it was the crypt of the chief of police, Medjay, and his wife. When the archaeologists originally unearthed the tomb, they discovered this beautiful statue of the couple.
“People would go and present offerings to a statue of their deceased relatives, so that they would have the food and drink they needed to be able to live forever,” Dr. Maitland said while explaining the way in which these tombs were decorated.
While most tombs would have been reused—much how Montsuef and his family took over the one belonging to Medjay and his wife—it’s incredible that it still remained untouched for two millennia. If it wasn’t for Dr. Maitland’s curiosity, the parcel could’ve gone unexplored for who knows how long!
It’s absolutely astonishing what historians can find by digging up the past—even when they’re digging in their own museum’s storage space! There’s so much to learn about our ancient history that we’d never know otherwise if not for the hard work of researchers like Dr. Maitland.
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