A linen ‘bag-tunic’ discovered by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1909.

March 27, 2024

The West Berkshire Museum, in the English market town of Newbury, has a small collection of about 300 ancient Egyptian artefacts, which will be on temporary display as part of the exhibition From the Nile to Newbury until mid-November 2024. The highlight is a linen ‘bag-tunic’ found in the mummy wrappings of a lady named Irtyru, who lived during the Third Intermediate Period, c.800 BC.

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastThe reconstructed ‘bag-tunic’ belonging to Irtyru, discovered by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon.

Discovery

The woven linen bag-tunic was discovered at Deir el-Bahri by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1909. Carter labelled the Theban tomb where this bag-tunic was found as ‘Site 5’, and described it as ‘a rock-cut court with sepulchral chambers on both sides and at its northern end’. It belonged to an Egyptian woman who was about 35 years old when she died. Her tunic and other household linens were ripped up after she died and used to wrap her embalmed body. Irtyru and her husband Padekhonsu were buried next to each other, while their son Padeamun was buried in a separate room. Several other mummies were buried at the northern end of the tomb, although their relationship to Irtyru and her family is unknown.

Carter describes the coffin of Irtyru as elaborate and well-painted. He describes the mummy of Irtyru as follows:

The mummy was enveloped in a well-preserved dark terracotta coloured linen shroud, tied underneath and held in position by several narrow bands of brown and yellow linen, making a rich piece of colour and delicious harmony in contrast to the clean white and decorated interior of the coffin. Lying at the head was a fillet of leaves, like a diadem, sewn together and adorned with tiny petals of flowers. …Among the folds were four Amenti figures and one Bennu bird in wax… these were placed on the right vertical nipple line and on a level with the base of the xiphisternum [cartilage at the base of the sternum]. The body was of a female adult of approximately 35 years of age. The hands were placed between the thighs.

We can deduce from this that Carter, or a member of his team, unwrapped the mummy and attempted to work out Irtyru’s age at death. After unwrapping the body, Carter recognised that the bag-tunic was a significant piece of clothing. It is currently preserved in three parts: the upper part of the tunic and two smaller pieces that are sewn together. These lower parts are probably part of the same tunic, and the whole has been mounted as a single item of clothing.

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastThe surviving part of the tunic, which has been conserved and mounted on material to form a complete tunic.

The lower parts have many straight lines cut into them, forming small rectangles – it has been suggested this was done to remove small pieces as souvenirs. The bag-tunic was mounted long after it was excavated, but it was probably Carter or a member of his team who made the horizontal cuts in the middle. Sadly, Carter disposed of the body of Irtyru after excavation without recording where it went, which was common practice at the time.

The coffins and intact mummies of Padeamun and Padekhonsu were donated by Lord Carnarvon to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and the bag-tunic to the Newbury Museum – now known as the West Berkshire Museum. Carter’s disposal of the body led a local councillor to lament that ‘an inspection of this interesting exhibit was very disappointing inasmuch as the lady herself was missing’; he was afraid that they ‘had become parties to the rather cruel act of divorcing this lady of 2,800 years ago from a very nice coffin. One wondered what had been done with the body.’

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastThe painted coffin of Irtyru, on display at Highclere Castle, the home of Lord Carnarvon.

A few notes about linen

Linen was the most popular material used by the ancient Egyptians to make clothes. Made from flax, it was harvested by being pulled out of the ground whole, rather than being cut at the stem. Flax contains a high amount of pectin, which helps preserve linen for longer.

Carter’s linen tunic | The Past
One of Irtyru’s mummy bandages, showing a repaired cut line and square holes that may have been cut by Howard Carter or his team for souvenir pieces.

After harvesting, the linen was spun into a thread using a drop spindle (examples of which were found at Kahun), and was then woven using a horizontal or vertical loom. The earliest representations of spinning are from the Middle Kingdom, while examples of woven linen, and the earliest representations of a horizontal loom, date back to the Predynastic period. Different grades of linen were produced in ancient Egypt, from coarse to extremely fine. Linen was woven in both domestic sites and in ‘factory’ sites. It was sometimes used as a form of payment. Used as clothing both for people and for the gods, it formed an important part of the ancient Egyptian economy.

It was not uncommon for clothes to be incorporated into the burials of the ancient Egyptians, either by dressing the deceased in the clothes (in the Old Kingdom); placing them as part of the burial goods (many textiles were found in the tombs of Tutankhamun and Kha); or reused as part of the mummy wrappings themselves. So far, we do not know the percentage of mummified human remains wrapped in bandages made from clothes or household linen. Experts have differing ideas about why clothes were included in mummy wrappings: some suggest that they were a valuable source of linen, and so too precious to simply dispose of; others believe they were included to provide the deceased with a wardrobe after death. Other issues relate to the number of mummies that have been destroyed during the Industrial Revolution for fuel (and previously for paint or medicine), and the number of public unwrapping events where pieces of the textiles were frequently cut up as souvenirs for those who attended. One useful glimmer of understanding of the ancient Egyptian perspective may be gained from the following quote:

Woe, woe… Alas this loss! The good shepherd has gone to the land of Eternity; he who willingly opened his feet to going is now enclosed, bound, and confined. He who had so much fine linen, and so gladly put it on, sleeps now in the cast-off garments of yesterday.

Clearly, the ancient Egyptians expected their old linen to be included in their mummy wrappings, reminding us once again of its value.

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastThe shroud of a woman wearing a fringed tunic, Roman Period.

Carter’s bag-tunic

Bag-tunics are one of the most common types of clothing to have survived from ancient Egypt. There were two types: knee-length and ankle-length. The knee-length version was worn only by men, but both men and women wore the ankle-length tunic. It is called a bag-tunic as it is essentially bag-shaped. Some authors believe it to be the precursor of the modern galabeya, which is commonly worn in modern Egypt.

Carter’s linen tunic | The Past

Chantress of Amun, Nauny, depicted wearing a ‘bag-tunic’ in a scene from her Book of the Dead. Images: Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA)

The bag-tunic at the West Berkshire Museum is approximately 145 cm long and 50 cm wide. It is made of finely woven linen, with a blue-striped border. The type of weave is ‘balanced tabby’ – this means that, in any square, there is an equal number of warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads. There is a warp-based fringe along the bottom edge. The tunic has a V-shaped neck at the front and a round neck at the back, and was made from a single piece of woven linen, sewn together with a blanket stitch along the border. The neck was shaped by cutting into the fabric and hemming afterwards to prevent fraying. It would have had a belt to tie around the waist to draw it in – there are some wear marks around the waist area that might have been caused by this. Some of the wear marks might also indicate that it was folded in four after it was used. There are areas, too, where there is a darning repair, based on strengthening the warp. This was a common type of darn found in ancient Egyptian linens, and is found as well on the other item from Irtyru’s burial currently at the West Berkshire Museum – a piece of mummy wrapping.

The mummy wrapping is about 200 cm in length, and 10 cm to 20 cm wide, and is also made of fine linen. The length suggests that it was possibly a bed sheet, or perhaps part of another bag-tunic. This indicates several facts about Irtyru’s burial. First, the family were wealthy enough to donate such cherished household linens towards her mummy wrappings. Second, they clearly cherished the linens during their time of use, as shown by the heavy darning and patches of repair. The holes in the folds indicate that the linens were possibly kept for some time after their use – perhaps earmarked for use as potential mummy wrappings at a later date.

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastThe warp-based fringe along the bottom edge of the tunic.

Tunic border

The blue striping on the border is another indication of the quality of this garment. The mordant that was used to fix the dye was difficult to obtain and costly as a result. It is seen only in garments of the highest quality, such as the tunic found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun that was dyed entirely in blue, with red rosettes. This was known as the ‘Falcon Tunic’; when Tutankhamun wore it, he became the living Horus falcon. However, even for the wealthy, a few blue stripes on the edges of a garment had to suffice. It is not known if the blue border has any ritual meaning, or if it was simply decoration. Bag-tunics from the Tomb of Kha and Merit (TT8) show similar stripes on the border.

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastAn area of damaged mummy bandage which was repaired in antiquity by using a warp-based darn, showing that the linen it came from was valued enough to be fixed. It also illustrates at what point the ancient Egyptians considered an item had been used ‘enough’ before deposition as part of mummy wrappings.

The use of colour suggests that the ancient Egyptians considered these garments to be precious, and important enough to include in mummy wrappings. Although such wrappings were made from old and well-used garments and household linens, these textiles were clearly still of high enough quality. Wrappings were part of the process that turned the deceased into the living embodiment of Osiris, and therefore only high-quality linens were felt to be suitable for this magical process. Second-hand clothing and linen is viewed today in a very different way!

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastDetail of the tunic showing blue striping running along the border, an indication of the high quality of this garment.

Footprint

On the linen of the bag-tunic, there is a footprint that is repeated four times, but reduces in intensity. It is equivalent to a UK size 4 (European size 37; US size 6.5). It was made by someone standing on the linen with a foot covered in a mix of resins that were used to embalm bodies. The tunic must have been folded four times, as the footprint becomes fainter in the underlying layers compared to the top layer. Perhaps the linen was being stored on the floor of the embalming tent when it was accidentally trodden on by one of the embalmers. This is a fascinating insight into the conditions inside an embalming tent. There is little information about this, as such processes were not recorded by the ancient Egyptians themselves. It might indicate crowded working conditions, and that perhaps the embalmers covered the floor with household linens to reduce the heat from the sand, and to give themselves somewhere to dry their feet.

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastTunics and folded linen clothing from the Tomb of Kha and Merit (TT8) in Deir el-Medina. Image: Museo Egizio, CC BY 2.0

The footprint also suggests that the embalmers did not wear sandals as they worked, which was the case for most ancient Egyptian workers. The footprint is small, but consistent with the estimated sizes of ancient Egyptian feet. However, the footprint is not complete, so the foot that made it could well have been longer. This is a single footprint, so gait analysis is not possible. It does seem to reveal a high arch, which could indicate illness or injury and is sometimes associated with pain.

Finding such a footprint is incredibly rare. Egyptologist Margaret Serpico has examined the bag-tunic as part of her research into Funerary Ritual Substances, and says it is the first time that she has seen such a footprint. She has seen many handprints made by sticky hands covered in a dark, resinous-looking substance, often known colloquially as ‘black goo’, which was poured on to coffins. It is reasonable to assume this is the only such footprint currently known in the UK. It is possible, though, that other such footprints do, and in fact must, exist if it was commonplace to fold linens for use in mummy wrappings and place them on the floor of the embalming tents. Perhaps more will be spotted in the future.

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastThe linen tunics with coloured borders belonging to Dimutshepnankh, in the National Museum Denmark. Images: Elsa Yvanez

It is also interesting to consider that the owner of the footprint was standing in one place for some time, as shown by the lack of smudging, and the fact that the dark deposit had seeped through four layers of folded linen. Perhaps the substance was not too hot, and so the embalmer could bear to stand still for a long time without trying to wipe it off. Possibly the ancient Egyptian embalmers were used to this as an occupational hazard, and that is why folded linens were placed on the floor of the tent in the first place? Or it could have happened by mistake. Mummification was not always a perfect practice: a CT scan of the Nesperennub mummy at the British Museum revealed a small dish apparently stuck to the back of the head during the embalming process. It had possibly been placed there to collect excess funerary substances and simply hardened into place. These mistakes reveal much about the process of embalming, as well as providing a human side to the embalmers of ancient Egypt.

Carter’s linen tunic | The PastThe surviving piece of the tunic with a repeated footprint.Carter’s linen tunic | The PastA close-up of the footprint, which is a UK size 4.Carter’s linen tunic | The PastMargaret Serpico examining the composition of the substances of the footprint.

Who originally owned the bag-tunic?

Estimates of the height of the ancient Egyptians reveal that women tended to be about 5 ft 2 in (157.5 cm) and men about 5 ft 6 in (167.6 cm). The length of the bag-tunic (approximately 145 cm) means it could have comfortably fitted either a man or a woman. The garment could well have been substantially longer, as we do not know how much was removed in the cut area. Using a belt would have shortened it even further. Although it was found in Irtyru’s mummy wrappings, we cannot be sure it was actually hers: it is more likely that it came from her household. If it was much longer originally, it is probable that it would have been worn by a man. Its presence in her mummy wrappings tells us something about her social standing and her wealth, or at least that of her household.

Rachel Cotton is a mature student studying for an MA in Egyptology at the University of Manchester. She previously obtained an MSc in Museum Studies from Leicester University, and worked as a museum curator. Rachel is currently involved in the temporary display From the Nile to Newbury: life and death in ancient Egypt, which is a co-curation project between the Thames Valley Ancient Egypt Society and West Berkshire Museum Service. For more details about the display and associated activities and talks