The mummy of Zagreb.
Photo: SpeedyGonsales/Creative Commons, CC BY 3.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
When an unidentified ancient language was found on a mummy’s bandages in the 19th century, Egyptologists were baffled. Deciphering it took decades. However, thanks to this, scholars have gained valuable information about its authors: the Etruscans.
Mummy in a mysterious manuscript
In 1868, the Zagreb Museum in Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, acquired an Egyptian mummy of a woman. Its previous owner stripped it of all the “casings” he had kept to himself. He was an ordinary person, not a member of the royal family or a priest. However, the packaging concealed a fascinating mystery. There was writing on the linen strips, but a German Egyptologist Heinrich Bruegsch Note that these were not Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was a line unknown to him until now.
Two decades later, in 1891, the museum authorities agreed to send these covers to Vienna. They hoped that these mysterious signs could be deciphered. The dressings were examined by an Austrian Egyptologist Jacob Krall, who was finally able to discover the mysterious symbols. The letters were not Coptic, as some believe, but the words of the Etruscans, the words of the culture that prevailed in Italy before the Romans. Whoever wrapped the mummy centuries ago used torn ribbons from the Etruscan linen book.
The discovery was exciting. References to Etruscan cloth books can be found in many classic works, but there are no surviving examples. The dry climate in Egypt, combined with the dryers used to dry the mummy, created an ideal environment for preserving fragile textiles. The mummy covers were not only the first Etruscan cloth text found, but also the longest Etruscan text ever found. It could be the “holy grail” of information about this culture.
The text is partially decoded
Kral’s identification of the Zagreb Cloth Book, also known as Liber Linteus Zagrabiensis, raised many questions. These packs relate not only to their packaging, but also to the time in which they should have been created. It was also a mystery how this wrapper could have ended up with an Egyptian mummy.
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Etruria originated in the 8th century BC, traded with Greek colonists and developed a sophisticated culture of metalworking, painting, and sculpture. Trade brought Etruria goods, Greek gods, and the Euboean Greek alphabet. The Etruscans adapted it and created their own script, which was written from right to left.
The Etruscan language is almost unique among European languages. Almost all are derived from Indo-European languages, but the Etruscan language is an exception: a rare case of a language that preceded the Indo-European influx and also survived it.
The Zagreb Cloth Book was a sheet of about 3 meters long with 12 columns of text before it was torn into bandages. The portion recovered from the binding is believed to correspond to about 1,330 words—about 60 percent of the original text. Prior to the discovery of the Cloth Book, Etruscan scholars could only study the ancient language on the basis of about 10,000 short inscriptions, but Krall’s identification of the Cloth Book language in 1891 greatly increased the number of available texts.
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The Etruscan cloth book was not the only text included on the covers of the mummy. Papyrus was also used with the Egyptian Book of the Dead to wrap the body. This Egyptian work refers to a female character by name Nissi Khones (“The Lady of the House”), which scholars now believe is a woman whose body is mummified. In the late twentieth century, it was established that she lived sometime between the fourth and first centuries BC and died at the age of thirty.
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