Etruscan letters form the Linen Book of Zagreb, later torn into strips to use as bandages to wrap an Egyptian mummy.

What was the mystery message written on the mummy's wrappings?

A puzzle confounded Egyptologists when an unidentified ancient language was found on a mummy's bandages in the 1800s. Solving it took decades but rewarded scholars with valuable insight into the authors—the Etruscans.

Etruscan letters form the Linen Book of Zagreb, later torn into strips to use as bandages to wrap an Egyptian mummy.
Courtesy of the Archaeological Museum of Zagreb, photograph by Igor Krajcar

In 1868 the Museum of Zagreb in Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, acquired an Egyptian mummy of a woman. Her previous owner had removed her wrappings but held on to them. She had been an ordinary person, not royalty or of the priestly class. Her wrappings, however, held a fascinating puzzle. There was writing on the linen strips, but German Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch noted that they were not Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was a script unknown to him.

Two decades later, in 1891, museum authorities agreed to send the wrappings to Vienna to see if they could translate the markings. The bandages were examined by the Austrian Egyptologist Jakob Krall, who was able to finally break the code: The letters were not Coptic, as some had speculated, but Etruscan, the words of a culture that had dominated pre-Roman Italy. Whoever had wrapped the mummy centuries before had used strips torn from an Etruscan linen book.

The discovery was sensational. References to Etruscan linen books can be found in many classical works, but surviving specimens had been impossible to find. The arid climate of Egypt coupled with the desiccants used to dry out the mummy had created a perfect environment to preserve the fragile textile. The mummy’s wrappings were not only the first linen Etruscan text found intact but also the longest text ever found in Etruscan. It could be a gold mine of information on the culture.

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