The Liber Linteus: An Egyptian mummy encased in a secret message

The Liber Linteus: An Egyptian mummy encased in a secret message 1

Before Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself the emperor of France in 1804, he took with him a significant number of intellectuals and scientists known as ‘savants’ from France, in addition to troops and military men. It was the year 1798, when these French savants led by Napoleon started a military campaign in Egypt. On the other hand, the engagement of these 165 savants in the battles and strategies of the French force gradually increased. As a result, it rekindled European interest in ancient Egypt ― a phenomenon known as Egyptomania.

The Liber Linteus: An Egyptian mummy encased in a secret message 2
Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, (ca. 1868) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Egyptian treasures such as ancient sculptures, papyri, and even mummies were eventually transferred from the Nile Valley to museums around Europe. The Liber Linteus (means “Linen Book” in Latin) mummy and its equally renowned linen wrappings finally found their way into the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia.

In 1848, Mihajlo Bari, a Croatian official in the Hungarian Royal Chancellery, resigned from his position and chose to travel. While in Alexandria, Egypt, Bari decided to acquire a memento, a sarcophagus containing a female mummy. When Bari returned to his house in Vienna, he placed the mummy in an upright position in the corner of his sitting room. Bari took his mummy’s linen covering and exhibited it in a separate glass cabinet.

The Liber Linteus: An Egyptian mummy encased in a secret message 3
Mummy at the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia. © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bari died in 1859, and his brother Ilija, a priest in Slavonia, received the mummy. Ilija, who had little interest in mummies, donated the mummy and her linen wrappings to the State Institute of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia (today known as the Archaeological Museum of Zagreb) in 1867.

Nobody had observed the enigmatic inscriptions on the mummy’s wrappings until then. The writings were discovered only after the mummy was studied by German Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch (in 1867). Brugsch, assuming them to be Egyptian hieroglyphs, did not pursue the matter further.

The Liber Linteus
The unique Liber Linteus – linen mummy wrappings bearing Etruscan script. © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Brugsch had a fortuitous chat with a friend, the British adventurer Richard Burton, a decade later. They discussed runes, which led Brugsch to realize that the inscriptions on the mummy’s linen wrappings were not Egyptian hieroglyphs, but rather some other script.

Despite the fact that both men recognized the significance of the inscriptions, they incorrectly assumed that it was a translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in Arabic. Later it was found that the inscriptions were written in Etruscan ― the language of the Etruscan civilization, in Italy, in the ancient region of Etruria (modern Tuscany plus western Umbria and Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Lombardy and Campania).

The Liber Linteus: An Egyptian mummy encased in a secret message 4
A sample of Etruscan text carved into the Cippus Perusinus – a stone tablet discovered on the hill of San Marco, Italy, in 1822. Circa 3 rd/2nd century B.C. © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Because so little of the ancient language has remained, the Etruscan language is still not completely understood today. Nonetheless, some phrases might be used to offer an indication of the subject matter of the Liber Linteus. The Liber Linteus is considered to have been a religious calendar based on the dates and god names contained throughout the book.

The question is, what exactly was an Etruscan book of rites doing on an Egyptian mummy? One theory is that the dead was a wealthy Etruscan who escaped to Egypt, either in the third century BC (the Liber Linteus has been dated to this period) or later, as the Romans annexed Etruscan land.

Before her burial, the young woman was embalmed, as was customary for wealthy foreigners who died in Egypt. The appearance of the Liber Linteus might be described as a memento left for the dead as part of Etruscan funeral customs. The main issue is a fragment of papyrus scroll that was buried with the mummy.

The dead is identified in the scroll as an Egyptian woman named Nesi-hensu, the wife of a Theban ‘divine tailor’ named Paher-hensu. As a result, it seems probable that the Liber Linteus and Nesi-hensu are unrelated, and that the linen used to prepare this Egyptian woman for the afterlife was the only linen available to the embalmers.

The Liber Linteus is the oldest known surviving existent manuscript in the Etruscan language as a result of this ‘accident’ in history.

Early Roman culture was heavily influenced by the Etruscans. The Latin alphabet for example is directly inspired by the Etruscan one. The same goes for architecture, religion and maybe even political organization. Though Etruscan influenced Latin to its core but eventually was completely superseded by it within a few centuries.

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