The Embroideress Euphemia: an Egyptian mummy with a unique story

Several widely studied grave ensembles were found in the Antinoöpolis necropolis, among them the grave of 'the Embroideress Euphemia'. This blog tells the story of Euphemia, a woman with a unique life, preserved in a unique way, found in a unique grave.

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Alexandra van Puyvelde (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis - Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire)

At the end of the Nineteenth Century the French archaeologist Albert Gayet excavated a few fascinatingly unique graves in Egypt. Gayet had been sent to Egypt to do excavations in Antinoöpolis, a city founded by Emperor Hadrian in 130 AD. Gayet not only excavated the temple of Ramses II in that region, but also cleared the fascinating Coptic necropolis of Antinoöpolis.

Several widely studied grave ensembles were found in the Antinoöpolis necropolis, among them the graves of goldsmith Kolluthos and his wife Tisoia, and also the grave ensemble of 'the Embroideress Euphemia'. This blog tells the story of Euphemia, a woman with a unique life, preserved in a unique way, found in a unique grave.

Euphemia wasn't mummified along the tradition of the Ancient Egyptians which included removing organs from the body. Euphemia is a 'natural mummy', her body preserved almost impeccably by chance. She was dressed in several tunics, wrapped in shrouds and buried without a coffin. Salt on her skin and clothing had helped the preservation process.

Multidisciplinary research revealed that she was over 40 years old when she died and that she was correctly nourished and hydrated during her life. The number and quality of the clothes and textiles she was buried with, confirm her wealthy social background.

She was identified by Gayet as an ‘embroideress’ because he considered some of the textiles and objects in her grave to be embroideries and embroidery tools. Afterwards, however, they turned out to be tapestry fabrics, spinning and weaving instruments. In an inscription on a fabric, Gayet thought he recognized the name ‘Euphemiâan’. This inscription was not found later.

‘Euphemia’ recently underwent a significant conservation and restoration treatment, thanks to the generous support of a private sponsor through the King Baudouin Foundation.

The recent examination of all the elements of the grave contents revealed that some textiles have already been restored in the past. On the other hand, some other splendid fabrics have never been treated. Damage, sometimes very significant, was clearly visible and required intervention. In particular it can be observed that the textiles were holed, torn and that their seams were relaxed or loose. The fibres, in turn, are brittle and visibly extremely fragile.

Old restorations performed on several fabrics posed conservation problems. Some threads used for the consolidation of the textile were breaking and therefore no longer fulfilled their role. Other threads, on the other hand, were creating too much tension. These textiles were restored by using small pieces of Japanese paper.

Check out these videos about the restoration of the mummy Euphemia:

If you want to visit the mummy in person, The mummy and burial goods feature in the exhibition ‘Crossroads. Travelling through Middle Ages’ at the Art and History Museum (27.10.2019 - 29.03.2020).

By Alexandra Van Puyvelde, Scientific collaborator ‘Art of the Islamic World’ and ‘Art of the Eastern Christianity’ collections - Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis - Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Archaeology project, which digitises Europe’s rich heritage of archaeological monuments, historic buildings, cultural landscapes and artefacts.