British Museum blog

Faith after the pharaohs: Egyptian papyri conservation

Bridget Leach, Conservator: Pictorial Art, British Museum

Working in the paper conservation studio 1

Examination under the microscope (prior to repair) of the Egypt Exploration Society’s papyri.

In preparation for the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition five papyri, kindly loaned from the Egypt Exploration Society, came into the Paper Conservation studio. As papyrus conservator at the British Museum I have worked on a wide range of manuscripts held by our Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan over the years. The collection includes many fine examples of papyri from ancient Egypt such as temple accounts from Abu Sir dating from approximately 2400 BC, some of the longest and beautifully illustrated funerary rolls from throughout Egypt’s long Pharaonic history, as well as literary texts and day to day legal documents. Working on such material has always been fascinating but I was particularly delighted to be able to work on these five papyri as they were excavated at Oxyrhynchus. The story of this excavation had fired my initial interest in papyrus as a paper conservation student many years ago.

Papyrus rolls before conservation EES image

A group of papyrus rolls as excavated. (Courtesy of The Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford)

The ancient town of Oxyrhynchus, meaning ‘city of the sharp nosed fish’, modern al-Bahnasa lying 120 miles south of Cairo, was excavated between 1896 and 1907 by papyrologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. This excavation began as part of a systematic exploration of the sites of Greco-Roman settlements and their discoveries were made in the sandy mounds on the outskirts of the town. The mounds turned out to be ‘drifts’ of rubbish tips which proceeded to yield approximately half a million fragments of papyri with ancient texts including early Christian literature. Grenfell and Hunt spent six seasons at Oxyrhynchus and their discoveries were by far the most exciting of the time in terms of quantity and range of the manuscripts found. Here was found several centuries worth of archives where official and private documents collectively provided a rare insight into the everyday life of this Roman town’s inhabitants during the 1st to 6th centuries AD. The papyri that came to the paper conservation studio included a rental agreement between two female monks leasing part of their home to a Jewish man (P.Oxy 3203) excavated in the first season, a small fragment containing the Greek Septuagint (P.Oxy 3522) and another depicting an informal drawing of Daniel in the lion’s den, both excavated in the fourth season. It is unknown during which season the last two papyri were found but they addressed matters relating to the Roman requirement for all citizens to sacrifice to the gods and include a Certificate of Sacrifice (P.Oxy 3929) and a letter from a Chrisitian man named Copres about a way to avoid the obligation (P.Oxy 2601).

00941606_001

The Cyperus papyrus L. plant. 

Undoubtedly helped by the dry climate of Egypt, papyrus has proved to be a very durable writing material with remarkable powers of preservation. Made from Cyperus papyrus L., a sedge plant about four metres high that grew plentifully along the banks of the Nile in antiquity, a sheet a papyrus was made from sections of the lower part of the stem where it was at its thickest. The outer rind is peeled off to reveal a spongy white inner pith which can be sliced longitudinally to make thin strips. These strips are laid side by side to form one layer before laying a second layer on top at right angles, then pressing and drying the whole. Individual sheets made in this way could then be joined to form a roll.

00941610_001

A peeled section of the lower stem showing the pith inside being peeled into strips.

00941609_001

Two layers of strips are laid at right angles over each other. The two layers are then pressed together to form, when dry, a sheet of the writing material.

The five papyri for the exhibition were in need of minor repair and all except the small fragment of Daniel were in need of remounting between new sheets of glass. It was decided to exhibit Daniel in a passe-partout without glass to try and enhance viewing for the visitor. Generally papyri are so fragile that glass mounts are necessary for their protection but in this case, the fragment being small and in reasonable condition, an exception was made for the duration of the exhibition.

1. Before conservation and remounting

The papyrus in it’s old mount.

2. With the papyrus removed, the density of the salt bloom on the glass is visible

The old mount with the papyrus removed showing a thick salt bloom.

3. After conservation

The papyrus in a new glass mount.

All the papyri were examined under magnification before opening the old glass mounts and starting any treatment. Once opened a bloom or ‘halo’ could be immediately seen on the old glass, in the case of P. Oxy 3203 it was very pronounced. This is a common feature with papyri enclosed in glass, particularly those found by excavating rubbish tips where they are found together with other material such as potsherds, ash, charcoal, rags, straw, and various kinds of kitchen waste. In this type of archaeological context papyri will absorb soluble salts. When later enclosed in glass, and even in conditions where relative humidity changes very little, the salts absorb small amounts of moisture from the surrounding air. As the air slowly dries out again these soluble salts migrate outwards and deposit themselves on the nearest surface which in this case is the glass. This can happen repeatedly over the years and a substantial ‘bloom’ can build up inside the mount making the papyrus quite hard to read. Scientific analysis has found the bloom to consist of mainly sodium chloride, common salt, and it can be wiped off the glass very easily. However the Oxyrhynchus papyri were all remounted in new glass for the exhibition.

Repairing fractured areas using small tabs applied with tweezers

Repairing a loose fragment of P.Oxy 3203 using small ‘tabs’ applied with tweezers.

Before remounting some conservation work was undertaken on the manuscripts. This involved laying back loose or twisted fibres and repairing along fractures. Repairs – in this case small pieces of Japanese paper, used for its strength and quality and toned to a sympathetic colour – are applied to the papyri with starch paste. The newly mounted papyri now take their place in the exhibition alongside the other fascinating objects that tell the story of faith after the pharaohs.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

 

 

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16,387 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

We’re sharing our favourite photos taken by visitors – use #myBritishMuseum if you’d like to feature! Here’s a brilliant shot by @j.ziolkowski that really captures the cool tones of the Great Court. We love the collision of lines in this photo – the hard edges of the original 1823 building set against the curvature of the later Reading Room and tessellation of the glass roof. 
Get snapping if you’d like to feature in our next #regram. 
#BritishMuseum #architecture #perspective #GreatCourt This Degas print is an example of the subject matter and technique the artist moved towards in the early 1890s. During this time, Degas produced sketchy prints showing female figures post-bathing. In this print we can see that the ink has been reworked during the printing process – the hair and shoulders show evidence of additional brushstrokes. The backgrounds of these works are much more sketchy and blurred than works he produced earlier in his career, perhaps showing his increased interest in figures.
#Degas #print #portrait The intense gaze of this young woman was originally intended to appear in the background of a horse racing scene by Degas, but the painting was never completed. This type of challenging composition is typical of the French artist’s work – he liked to crop the viewpoints of his paintings and sketches to create a different atmosphere. The coolly returned stare reverses the traditional relationship between viewer and subject, and emphasises Degas’ progressive approach to painting.
#Degas #painting #sketch #Paris French artist Edgar Degas died #onthisday in 1917. Today we’ll feature works that showcase his radical approach to framing subjects, and his subtle handling of form and tone. This vivid oil sketch from 1876–1877 depicts a repeated motif in Degas’ work – the Parisian ballet. He captured both performances and behind-the-scenes moments in his paintings and sketches, often using vantage points that give a fly-on-the-wall impression to his work. Degas worked rapidly but precisely – mirroring the movements of the dancers he portrayed – and this work is completed in thinned-down oil paint so that his quick brushstrokes could dry quickly.
#Degas #sketch #oilpainting #Paris #ballet Our #SunkenCities exhibition is the first at the British Museum on underwater archaeology. Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. 
At the mouth of the Nile, the city of Thonis-Heracleion flourished as the main entry point into Egypt. Underwater excavations have found a large harbour, numerous ships and anchors, proving this was an international port. This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through Thonis and Naukratis. A copy was found in the main Egyptian temple in each port. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis. 
Learn more about the connections between the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition - until 30 November. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about it. 
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. On loan from National Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were thriving cities long before the foundation of the great port of Alexandria in 331 BC. Finds suggest that they were still inhabited into the AD 700s. The cities’ disappearance was caused by gradual subsidence into the sea – much like Venice today – coupled with earthquakes and tidal waves. This triggered a phenomenon known as land ‘liquefaction’, when the ground turns into liquid. 
This reconstruction shows what the port of Thonis-Heracleion could have looked like, dominated by the Temple of Amun-Gereb. Follow the link in our bio to book your tickets to our #SunkenCities exhibition. © Yann Bernard. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
%d bloggers like this: