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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The mummy case of this temple doorkeeper called Padiamenet is covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions and religious images. The inscriptions on this brilliantly painted cartonnage tell us that he was the Chief Doorkeeper of the Domain of Ra, the Chief Attendant of Ra, and also Chief Barber of the Domain of Ra and of the temple of Amun. This largest scene shows Padiamenet, dressed in a long fringed robe, adoring the god Osiris, who is grasping the royal crook and flail. Behind him stands his sister, the goddess Isis.
Gain a unique insight into the lives of eight people over a remarkable 4,000 years in our #8mummies exhibition, closing 12 July #MummyMonday
#history #mummies #BritishMuseum Peter Paul Rubens was born #onthisday in 1577.
This is a magnificent drawing in both scale and style. It is drawn in black and yellow chalk, though Rubens also used a grey wash and some white heightening in order to bring the animal to life on paper.
The lioness is drawn from behind. Her front paw is raised and her mouth open, the fangs clearly visible. White heightening brings out the lighted area around the tail and the joints of the back legs. Both short and longer chalk strokes are used to suggest the different textures of the fur and mane.
Rubens used this drawing for a lioness in his painting of 'Daniel in the Lions' Den' (1613/15; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). The vividness of the drawing is even more remarkable given that Rubens probably based his drawing on a bronze statue of a lion and not a living animal. The strong contour line in black chalk around the animal suggests that he was studying a model. However, Rubens had the gift and genius to invest an unmoving object with both life and movement, even if the highlights give the impression of a metallic sheen.
#art #artist #Rubens #history This striking photo taken by @charlesimperialpendragon shows the colossal limestone bust of Amenhotep III in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4). #regram #repost

Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum A #ThrowbackThursday from our #archives!
It is early morning in 1875 in the Main Entrance Hall of The British Museum, and staff are preparing for the public. Until 1878 the Museum was open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and until midday on Saturdays. Tuesdays and Thursdays were reserved for students. The visiting hours varied with the seasons and during the summer months the Museum stayed open until 8 o'clock in the evening.
Staff stop work as the photographer Frederick York sets up his camera. Two men sit comfortably on a bench at the foot of the stairs. Another two, noticing the photographer, stop halfway down the stairs. As the long exposure needed for this early photograph has already started, their images appear faint and ghost-like. In the foreground is the Piranesi Vase which is now displayed in the Enlightenment Gallery.
#photograph #archive #throwback #tbt #BritishMuseum The @britishlibrary opened at St Pancras #onthisday in 1998!
The British Museum held library collections from 1753 until the British Library was formally established in 1973. In 1759 the first Museum Reading Room opened in Montagu House, the original home of the British Museum. However, as the Museum building developed and the number of readers increased, a series of improved reading rooms were built. Finally, in 1998 the British Library moved out of the Museum’s Bloomsbury site to its new home at St Pancras.
This engraving, from a watercolour by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1792–1864), shows the sixth Reading Room, designed by Sir Robert Smirke and completed in 1838. It was used until 1857 when the famous domed Round Reading Room opened.
The sixth Reading Room was in fact two connected rooms, each with an iron gallery at window height. More than 10,000 books were stored on the bookshelves. Originally space was available for 168 people seated at 24 tables. As the number of readers increased another 40 spaces were provided. In 1930 an extra floor was built at gallery height to increase storage space. The lower part of these two rooms has now been converted into the galleries of Mexico and North America (Rooms 26 and 27).
#history #BritishMuseum #books #library #archives This amazing photo of the Great Court was captured by @alexxxs 
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