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).

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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.

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

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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, , , , , ,

Amara West 2012: excavating excavations


Tom Lyons, archaeologist and Neal Spencer, British Museum

The EES team, with workmen, at Amara West in 1938-9. Seated left of centre is I.E.S. Edwards, then working as Assistant Keeper in the British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities.

The EES team, with workmen, at Amara West in 1938-9. Seated left of centre is I.E.S. Edwards, then working as Assistant Keeper in the British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities.

One house we have been excavating (E13.8) is not only located against the four metre-thick northern wall of the town but also at the limit of previous excavations undertaken by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES). The EES excavated the temple, parts of the town and the cemeteries in 1938-9 and 1947–50.

Tom cleaning a wall previous exposed by the EES. To the left is the edge of house E13.8

Tom cleaning a wall previous exposed by the EES.

Part of being an archaeologist in the twenty-first century includes rediscovering and reinterpreting the work of our predecessors in the field, when methods and aims were different from today. The excavators of the 1930s and 1940s focused on the temple, inscriptions and architectural plans. Occupation deposits received almost no attention, and of course many analytical methods now available were unheard of then.

We have just emptied 61 years of accumulated sand from one of the buildings excavated in 1949-50, immediately adjacent to our house E13.8. At the base of the excavation, we found a wall of a building they designated E.12.6.

In addition to confirming the accuracy of their plan, we can now explicitly link their architectural phases to ours, which means much of the town excavated in the 1930s and 40s can be fitted into the stages of urban development we have been able to reconstruct from the houses we are investigating.

The previous excavators never saw the eastern side of building E.12.6, and it is something we may find in the coming weeks…

Italian matchbox discarded by the EES excavators in the 1940s.

Italian matchbox discarded by the EES excavators in the 1940s.

Other aspects of the EES excavations have also come to light – including a fine matchbox found next to the residence of the Deputy of Kush, in a street partly excavated in the late 1940s. It has been registered as a find alongside the artefacts of the ancient inhabitants, as it all forms part of the site’s history.

Thanks are due to the Egypt Exloration Society, for permission to use the archive image.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project

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