In 1868, the Zagreb Museum in Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, acquired an Egyptian mummy from a woman. The mummy’s previous owner had removed her bandages and kept it to herself. She was of ordinary descent, she did not belong to the royal family or the clergy. But the shroud around her remains holds a fascinating mystery. The linen strips were marked with signs. The German Egyptologist Heinricht Brugsch saw that it was not Egyptian hieroglyphs, but a writing unknown to him.
Two decades later, in 1891, the museum board agreed to send the bandages to Vienna to see if the signs could be deciphered there. The Austrian Egyptologist Jakob Krall bent over the strips and was eventually able to decipher the code. They were not Coptic signs, as some suspected, but Etruscan words from a culture that was dominant in pre-Roman Italy. The person who prepared the mummy many centuries before had used strips from an Etruscan linen book.
It was a sensational discovery. Many classic works contain references to Etruscan linen books, but it was impossible to find a surviving copy. The combination of the dry Egyptian climate and the desiccants used for the mummy proved to be the perfect conditions for preserving the delicate fabrics. The text on the bandages was not only the first intact Etruscan text on linen, but also the longest Etruscan text ever found. It may have provided a wealth of information about the culture.
See also: Very rare lion mummies discovered in Egypt | national geography
Krall’s discovery of the ‘Zagreb Linen Book’ (also known by its Latin name Liber Linteus Zagrabiensis) raised many questions about its contents and when it was written. In addition, the question was also how an Etruscan book became the shell of an Egyptian mummy.
Today’s Italian region of Tuscany is roughly similar to Etruria, the land of the Etruscans. Etruria, which flourished in the eighth century BC, traded with Greek settlers and developed a refined culture of painting, metalworking and woodworking. Trade left not only Etruria with goods, but also Greek gods and the Evian alphabet. The Etruscans made their own version of it, which was written from right to left.
The Etruscan language is unique among the European languages. Almost all of these (including Dutch) come from Indo-European languages that arrived in Europe thousands of years ago. Etruscan is an exception: it is one of the few languages that precedes Indo-European and has managed to resist its influence.
Early Roman history is intertwined with that of the Etruscans, who were the earliest kings of the cities. Etruscan words can be found in Latin: for example, ‘persona’ and ‘person’ are the Etruscan word for ‘mask’ phersu the foundation. With the increasing power of the Republic of Rome, Etruscan society was engulfed by it, leaving only objects, lively funeral art, and inscriptions that fewer and fewer people could read.
The Roman emperor Claudius in the first century AD. studied Etruscan. He was one of the last in classical antiquity to speak and read this language. Claudius even wrote a 20-volume story about the Etruscans, but this work has been lost.
Before being torn to pieces, the linen book from Zagreb was a canvas over three meters long with 12 columns of texts on it. About 1,330 words were found on the bandages, an estimated sixty percent of the original text. Prior to this discovery, the Etruscans had only about 10,000 short inscriptions to study the ancient language, but Krall’s work has given them much more text since 1891.
The experts initially thought it was an epitaph. As a result, they suspected that there was a connection to the dead body on which the text was found. The mummy was bought in Alexandria between 1840 and 1850 by the Croatian Mihail Baric. He kept the mummy in his home in Vienna. After his death, the mummy, including the bandages, was donated to the museum in Zagreb.
The mummy’s wrapping was not only made of the Etruscan linen book. There was also a papyrus scroll containing the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was used to wrap the body. This Egyptian work has a female figure named ‘Nesi-Khons’ (‘Lady of the House’). Scientists now assume she is the mummified woman. In the late twentieth century, it could be established that she lived somewhere between the fourth and first centuries BC. and was between thirty and forty years old when she died.
The black ink for the linen book was made of burnt ivory. Titles and subheadings were painted in red with cinnabar, a red-colored ore used for pigments. The Etruscan text was unreadable in many places because of the embalming liquid used for mummification. Around the 1930s, infrared photography continued to improve, making it possible to decipher an additional 90 lines of Etruscan text. It made clearer what the book’s function, according to the researchers, had been: a ritual calendar describing rituals to be performed throughout the year.
See also: Sacred Animals: Fauna and Religion in Egypt | national geography