British Museum blog

Opening up an ancient Egyptian library


Richard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

For many years before joining the British Museum as a curator in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, my life was tied up with the so-called ‘Ramesseum papyri’: a library of ancient Egyptian papyri that were discovered in 1895-6 under the temple of Ramses II, now known as the ‘Ramesseum’. As a school boy I had bought Alan Gardiner’s 1955 partial publication of some of the papyri and my doctorate was a commentary on one of the poems preserved in them, The Eloquent Peasant.

With Mme Nelson examining new finds from her excavations at the site of the Ramesseum in 2006

With Mme Nelson examining new finds from her excavations at the site of the Ramesseum in 2006

The 24 papyri are an almost unique surviving example of an ancient Egyptian library that was buried in its owner’s tomb around 1680 BC, but although some of them have been much studied they are extraordinarily fragmentary and fragile. Over the years, Bridget Leach, the Museum’s papyrus conservator, and I have helped many students and scholars examine them, and every time we have worried about their extreme fragility. And so we were eager to have a full visual record made in high resolution colour, so that the papyri could also be studied remotely without being disturbed too often, as well as enabling a global audience to access them. Nothing can substitute for working on an original manuscript, of course, and this will continue, but a good visual record allows much of the preliminary work to be done virtually, before a final collation with the actual fragile originals.

The British Museum’s Online research catalogue format offered a marvellous tool for this visual presentation, especially as it is linked to the collections database with its descriptions and bibliographies. Unlike a print catalogue it is continually updatable (and it needs to be: in May I am in Geneva to examine a new doctoral thesis by Pierre Meyrat on the previously untranslated magical texts in the library). Many of the fragments have not been fully published, some have never been published in photographs before, so this format will open up the library for study – as a whole and for the first time in its modern history.

Lisa Baylis photographing the papyri in Berlin in 2007

Lisa Baylis photographing the papyri in Berlin in 2007

Most satisfyingly for me, the catalogue includes all of the papyri. Two of the most important manuscripts are now in the great Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection in Berlin (including the poem of my doctorate). Thanks to their immensely kind collaboration, I was there with Lisa Baylis, a British Museum photographer, in 2007, and these two papyri now sit together with the London papyri in this new virtual version of the ancient library. The excavator had distributed the objects that he found with the papyri to the various institutions that had funded him, and they are now in Manchester, Cambridge and Philadelphia, but the catalogue has links to these items in their various institutions, and so reunites not only the papyri but the whole surviving tomb-group.

Underlying the project is the sad and rather irritating fact that Egyptologists often study texts away from their material context – both their physical reality as manuscripts and their archaeological findspot – and I hope that the catalogue will help change this and encourage a more grounded and theoretically informed approach in line with the so-called ‘Material philology’ school of textual studies. But my dominant memory of the whole enterprise is simpler: the sheer fun and overwhelming kindness I’ve encountered with so many helpful friends, students and colleagues in Britain, France, Germany, America and Egypt, who all have helped us get to this point in a common project.

But this is only a beginning, simply one step in encouraging people to start re-reading these texts that have miraculously survived (only just!) from 1680 BC.

Find out more about the Ramesseum papyri project and read the catalogue

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection, Conservation, Research, , , ,

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. ritaroberts says:

    The end result of conservation work in antiquity is very rewarding.How wonderful we now have super technolegy to help. These very fragile papyri are a marvelous example of the long hours needed to complete the project. Many thanks for sharing.

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  2. Hope this marks the beginning of the end of an era when many did not have access to wonderful antique manuscripts. These ancient documents can now be made public for the benefit of students and scholars.Technology will further aid in storing and restoring of these fragile papyri.

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  3. What was the content of these manuscripts?

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  4. dianabuja says:

    So pleased to see your emphasis on the context of mss. – this is so lacking in much of what has taken place in past decades. While I did an ma in egyptology, I went on into anthropology in frustration due to constantly being told egyptology = (disembodied) philology. I’m currently doing some work on the PGM (Greek Magical Papyri) and it is so frustrating to be met only with the jumble of texts and partial texts. Although, of course, most of that resulted from very poor recoveries in the 19th. C.

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Sculpture in antiquity was often adorned not only with colour but also with different materials. The Greek marble statue of an archer reconstructed here was drilled and fitted with metal attachments. The figure originally held a bronze bow and arrow and a quiver was fixed to his left hip by a metal dowel. Individual locks of hair were made of lead. The colourful design of the man’s knitted all-in-one garment, often worn by peoples from the east, is clearly seen weathered into the marble surface under controlled lighting.

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Plaster cast of archer with reconstructed paint, based on a Greek original of about 490–480 BC, from the Temple of Aphaia at Aigina. Staatliche Antikensammlung und Glyptothek, Munich. Uta Uta Tjangala's masterpiece Yumari is a highlight of‪ #IndigenousAustralia, opening a week today
#exhibition #art #history #BritishMuseum #Australia #museum Hans Sloane's collection also ended up as the basis of the @natural_history_museum and the @britishlibrary!
To make more room for the increasing collections held by the British Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This eventually became the Natural History Museum. These images show some of the natural history specimens on display, including giraffes and a mastodon!
In 1997, the library departments left the Museum to be re-housed at the new British Library in St Pancras.
#history #BritishMuseum #collection #animals #books Hans Sloane's encyclopaedic collection became the cornerstone of the British Museum.
This drawer was once part of the materia medica - a sort of pharmaceutical cabinet - in the collection of Sloane. The cabinet had several drawers, each carefully constructed to keep out destructive insects. Some drawers had small compartments like this example, others contained glazed boxes with seeds, fruit, bark, roots, gums and resins inside. Each had a label written by Sloane with a catalogue number. The botanical or medicinal name of the subtance, where it came from and who collected it were then recorded in his catalogues of his collection.
As Sloane's interest in natural history grew along with his income, he was able to widen the scope of his collection from being primarily medical to being more encyclopaedic, representing the widest possible variety of substances and artefacts for his own reference and for others to consult.
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