It’s natural for humans to search for ways to understand their history. This is why the field of archeology is so important. To find, document, and display 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 while sorting through a collection at National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh so intriguing!

After happening upon a parcel wrapped in paper, she didn’t think much of it. Until she saw something odd…

Dr. Margaret Maitland was going through some newly arrived items to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh when she came upon an ordinary parcel wrapped in brown paper. While there was nothing initially exciting about the item, she decided to remove the paper to take a closer look.

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Soon, however, Dr. Maitland, who was a curator at the museum in Edinburgh, found that the parcel contained an envelope that dated back to the World War II era. Inside of the envelope was a mysterious note from a former curator.

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In the note, the former curator claimed that the parcel’s contents dated back to ancient Egyptian times, and that they’d been discovered inside of a tomb from that same time period. Dr. Maitland suddenly realized that she was holding a very special piece of history—but she’d need some help to figure it out.

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A group of conservators from the museum were called in to further analyze the fabric. They were sure to handle the package with care, as it could easily become damaged when being unfolded. So they could do this, the group humidified the fabric in an effort to make it less brittle.

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The conservators’ next step was to unfold the delicate fabric. It was a process that took a grueling 24 hours to finish and it was literally like unfolding history right before their very eyes. Right away, though, they knew they’d discovered something incredible. The parcel offered “tantalizing glimpses of colorful painted details,” they reported.

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After more than an entire day of working to unfold the fabric, they suddenly realized the impact of the item they’d discovered. “None of us could have imagined the remarkable figure that would greet us when we were finally able to unroll it,” Dr. Maitland said in an interview.

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 “The shroud is a very rare object in superb condition, and is executed in a highly unusual artistic style, suggestive of Roman-period Egyptian art, yet still very distinctive,” Dr. Maitland continued in describing the rare item she’d found.

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The shroud, which was still intact and made of linen, 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.

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Once Dr. Maitland and the conservators fully understood the importance of the shroud, they were able to continue with the process with more precision. This including deciphering the hieroglyphs on the fabric—which allowed them to identify who had previously been wrapped with the shroud.

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His name was Aaemka, son of two Roman-era officials named Montsuef and Tanuat. The museum staff then found another surprise: a piece of brown paper attached to the backside. “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.

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Perhaps most startling to Dr. Maitland and the conservators was that 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.

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Luckily, the exhibit for Montsuef and Tanuat made dating the newfound fabric—and learning Aaemka’s story—even easier. Knowing that the family had passed away in 9 B.C. made it easy for the staff to date the fabric to the first century A.D.

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In addition to Montsuef’s golden mask, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh also housed this golden wreath, which was an ancient symbol of defeating death. Dr. Maitland mentioned that Montsuef had been buried with the item some 2,000 years ago!

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The tomb of Montsuef, Tanuat, and Aaemka was discovered in 1857, when archaeologists uncovered a number of incredible artifacts along with it. These included written details of the mummification process, as well as the funeral rituals that took place. They also learned that Tanuat had died just 48 days after her husband.

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Even though the family’s tomb was dated to the first century A.D., the museum staff discovered that it was created much earlier than they originally believed. Located in modern Luxor, it had been made roughly 1,000 years before the family members’ deaths.

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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.

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Besides the desire to have the most lavish and eloquently decorated crypts when they passed away, these high officials also believed that they would carry their wealth on Earth into the afterlife. So the more jewelry and art they were buried with, the better!

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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 dug the tomb, they discovered this beautiful statue of the couple.

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“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 of the way in which the tombs of the high officials were decorated.

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While most tombs would have been reused in the same way that 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. And if it wasn’t for Dr. Maitland’s curiosity, the parcel could’ve gone unexplored in the museum for who knows how much longer!

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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 the old world that people never would’ve known existed if not for their hard work.

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