The Liber Linteus: An Egyptian Mummy Wrapped in a Cryptic Message

In 1798, the French under Napoleon Bonaparte launched a military campaign in Egypt. Along with soldiers and military personnel, Napoleon brought a large number of scholars and scientists known as  savants when he invaded the country. The involvement of these scholars in the war resulted in a renewed European interest in ancient Egypt, known as Egyptomania.

In time, Egyptian artifacts, including statues, papyri and even Egyptian mummies were being shipped from the Nile Valley to museums across Europe. One particularly interesting mummy, and its equally famous linen wrapping, known as the  Liber Linteus  (Latin for “Linen Book”), eventually found its way into the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia.

Bonaparte before the Sphinx (circa 1868) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. ( Public domain )

How an Egyptian Mummy and its Liber Linteus Ended up in Vienna

In 1848, a Croatian official in the Hungarian Royal Chancellery by the name of Mihajlo Barić resigned from his post and decided to do some travelling. While he was in Alexandria, Egypt, Barić decided to buy a souvenir, leading to his purchase of a sarcophagus containing a female mummy.

When Barić returned to his home in Vienna, Austria, he displayed the mummy by putting her in the corner of his sitting room in an upright position. Barić removed the linen wrapping from his mummy and displayed it in a separate glass case.

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In 1859, Barić died, and his brother Ilija, a priest living in Slavonia, inherited the mummy. As Ilija had no interest in mummies, he decided to donate her to the State Institute of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia (now known as the Archaeological Museum of Zagreb) in 1867.

Up to that point of time, nobody had noticed the writing on the mummy’s linen wrapping. It was only when the mummy was examined in 1867 by the German Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch that they noticed the writing. Believing it to be Egyptian hieroglyphs, however, Brugsch did not investigate any further. 

Mummy at the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia.  (SpeedyGonsales / CC BY 3.0 )

Realizing the Importance of the Liber Linteus

A decade later, Brugsch had a chance conversation with a friend, the British explorer Richard Burton. They spoke about runes, resulting in Brugsch realizing that the writing on the mummy’s linen wrapping was not actually Egyptian hieroglyphs but some other script. Although both men realized that the writing may have been important, they wrongly concluded that it was a transliteration of the  Egyptian Book of the Dead  in Arabic.

In 1891, the Liber Linteus  were sent to Vienna, and were thoroughly examined by an expert on the Coptic language , Jacob Krall. Initially, Krall had expected that the language of the text was Coptic, Carian, or Libyan. Upon closer inspection, however, Krall established that the text was actually written in Etruscan. While he was able to reassemble the strips in their proper order, Krall was unable to translate the text.

The unique Liber Linteus – strips of linen mummy wrapping – bearing Etruscan script. (SpeedyGonsales / CC BY 3.0 )

Why Was There Etruscan Writing on an Egyptian Mummy?

Even today, the Etruscan language is still not fully understood, as very little of the ancient language has survived. Nevertheless, certain words could be picked out to provide an indication of the  Liber Linteus’  subject matter. Based on the dates and names of gods found throughout the text, it is thought that the  Liber Linteus  was a religious calendar.

What was an Etruscan book of rituals doing on an Egyptian mummy ? One suggestion is that the deceased was a wealthy Etruscan who fled to Egypt, perhaps some time during the third century BC (the  Liber Linteus  has been dated to this period) or later, as the Romans were annexing Etruscan territory.

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As was the norm with other rich foreigners who died in Egypt, the young woman was embalmed before her burial. The presence of the  Liber Linteus  may be explained as a memorial left for the dead, as part of the Etruscan burial custom. Yet, the biggest problem with this is a piece of papyrus scroll that was buried with the mummy.

The scroll identifies the deceased as an Egyptian woman by the name of Nesi-hensu, the wife of a Theban divine tailor named Paher-hensu. Hence, it is likely that the  Liber Linteus  and Nesi-hensu are not connected, and that it was probably the only linen the embalmers could get their hands on when they were preparing this Egyptian woman for the afterlife. As a result of this accident in history, the  Liber Linteus  is the oldest known preserved extant text in the Etruscan language .

Top image: Close up of the Liber Linteus. Source: Curious Expeditions / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Dhwty

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