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Travelogue G29

February 10, 2016

Though I thought to leave the museum then with my natural curiosity sated, I was unprepared for one of the last sights on our way out and in which I found, as it were, the whole of my seventy-two hours in London condensed to a single artifact. In the Egyptian section, the mummy of the Lady Takhebkhenem made its home in case 19. Yet not all of its belongings had stayed with the one-time owner, for some way off we discovered a net of blue, glazed faience beads which had formerly run the full length of the lady’s remains.

A neckhole punctured the net’s upper edge; tassels and their knotted ends adorned the lower. The craftsmen had arrayed the beads into a network of diamonds, each bead which closed a diamond thus forming the beginning edge of the next. The precise shape of the diamonds had, or so I supposed, distorted with the years. Certain had flattened while others were drawn out to their greatest possible length. Still others had vanished into rhombii.

The beads’ color varied from one instance to another as some sported an azure coat and others a tarnish or patina of the years accumulated. But the display perhaps provided an answer in the legend, which told of the net’s restoration in, as per my best estimate, the 1990’s. In fact, both mummy and net had been acquired from a certain Yanni the Greek at Alexandria in 1832 and came on display shortly thereafter. The subsequent century and a half were less than kind to the pair, and the museum’s curators undertook a careful restoration project.

Of the net, that same legend told how the rotting of the original thread had caused disintegration of large stretches of the net. Given that this fact had made it difficult to make out the original pattern and form, the curators proceeded from contextual clues and what remained of the structure to get an idea thereof. It was first necessary, however, to separate net from mummy. Careful though their efforts to transfer the net to tissue paper might have been, it occurred to me that the beads found another arrangement entirely on that paper, unbeknownst to the restorers.

Once eased onto a table and inspected, the net revealed itself to be a work of fabric twisted about itself. That twisting provided important clues to its earlier organization, for the net’s edging contained a number of knots, which, again according to the legend, had allowed the restorers to extrapolate the original weave of the upper netting. Of course, some beads had gone missing with the years, so they (the restorers) found themselves obligated to order bespoke beads, not of faience but of glass. They then painted these to match the tone of the surviving originals, which procedure likely accounted for the difference in hue between the beads.

The missing replaced, the disintegrated in place, the net entered the last phase of restoration as it was rethreaded on a new polyester yarn entwined about what thread remained of the original. Though the legend suggested that the net had been returned to its rightful place, it stood, as I found it that day, in its own case, cast off by or from the dead. It had passed from the realm of mortuary garment to artifact of full standing.

So cast off, it was easier to consider the net’s own existence as a network of points and lines within a unitary space. For the craftsmen, in laying out beads and thread millenia ago, had set out a pattern where no such artifice had existed. Once that pattern laid over a space previously unworked, it proved nigh impossible to dislodge. Certainly, when inner development or outer pressures caused degradation within the network, those in power worked the network over: replacing elements which had gone missing; tracing new lines and shapes; closing the space between elements once far; opening spans between those once neighboring. In this way, the space retained its overall appearance all the while its precise make-up altered from one crisis to another. The overlay remains, but the individual perishes.

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