British Museum blog

A medieval alchemical book reveals new secrets

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library 

Marcel Marée, Assistant Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum

Add. 25724

A page from the 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes (British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 50v)

Among the many intriguing objects on display in the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition is an 18th-century copy of the Book of the Seven Climes (Kitāb al-aqālīm al-ṣabah), on loan from the British Library. The book’s 13th-century author, Abū al-Qāsim al-‘Irāqī, believed it held ancient secrets coded in hieroglyphic texts. He was right, but not exactly as he imagined!

Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-‘Irāqī, known as al-Sīmāwī (‘the practitioner of natural or white magic’), was an author of books on alchemy and magic. He lived in Egypt during the reign of the Mamluk sultan Baybars I al-Bunduqdārī (r. 1260–1277). His books were popular and survive in many copies, but almost nothing is known about al-‘Irāqī himself.

The Book of the Seven Climes is the earliest known study focused wholly on alchemical illustrations. The ‘climes’ (from which our word ‘climate’ is derived) are the seven latitudinal zones into which the astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy divided the inhabited world in the 2nd century AD. Their mention in al-‘Irāqī’s title expressed an intention for his book to be all-encompassing.

Al-‘Irāqī reproduced illustrations from earlier Arabic alchemical texts and tried to decode their mysterious symbols and allegories, annotating the illustrations with his own interpretations. But how faithful was he in copying the illustrations for his book, and what changes were made as they were copied and re-copied during the five centuries of transmission linking al-‘Irāqī’s lost original to the 18th-century copy held at the British Library?

Luckily, while al-‘Irāqī’s 13th-century autograph manuscript is lost, one source of his illustrations is known to us: the Book of Images (Muṣḥaf al-ṣuwar). It is attributed to the 4th-century Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis and preserved in a copy made in Egypt in 1270, during al-‘Irāqī’s lifetime. The manuscript, now in Istanbul, could even be the one that al-‘Irāqī consulted.

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Matching illustrations in the 13th-century Book of Images (left) and the 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes (right). The later image is much reduced and reinterpreted, and pseudo-hieroglyphs were added. (left: İstanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 196r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18r)

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Another pair of matching illustrations in the same manuscripts, again showing numerous changes. (left: İstanbul Arkeoloji Muzeleri Kütüphanesi, MS 1574, fol. 205r; right: British Library, Add. MS 25724, fol. 18v)

Al-‘Irāqī was usually careful to cite his sources by title and author, but the images in his work, at least in their 18th-century versions, show many changes and omissions. In addition, some of the pages were embellished with pseudo-hieroglyphs, perhaps a code for the Arabic alphabet, not present in the original.

What did al-‘Irāqī make of the hieroglyphs in the illustrations? Were they all completely invented? To begin to understand this, it is worth examining a group of images in the Book of the Seven Climes now on display in the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. Below we illustrate a key explaining the various elements. These have been numbered for ease of reference in the rest of our discussion.

KG stela finalAl-‘Irāqī states that the material on this page comes from a ‘Hidden Book’ attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (1), a legendary sage-king of ancient Egypt who was believed to have mastered the secrets of occult sciences such as alchemy and to have recorded them in hieroglyphs on the walls of temples and tombs. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, last written nine centuries before al-‘Irāqī’s lifetime, were undecipherable to him and his contemporaries. Undeterred, and guided by the legend of Hermes Trismegistus, he gave the illustrated elements an alchemical interpretation. He refers to apparatus such as the distillation furnace (7) and the bain-marie (12), and to processes such as roasting (11) and blackening (2). Alchemical substances are referred to symbolically: the eagle (3, 4, 10) and the ‘intensely black’ raven (9) were widely employed as codes for sal ammoniac and for iron and/or lead, respectively.

But this page does not only contain alchemical secrets. The hieroglyphic composition in the lower panel is coherent enough to show that it was ultimately copied from an actual ancient monument. While distortions have crept in, the shapes of the hieroglyphs are not complete fantasy, unlike those of the interpolated pseudo-hieroglyphs mentioned further above. The Egyptologist Okasha El Daly first noted that the inspiration for the present image came from a stela carved in the name of King Amenemhat II, who ruled Egypt around 1922–1878 BC. Two of Amenemhat’s official names can still be recognised (9 and 12).

The ‘Horus name’ identified a pharaoh as an incarnation of Horus, the god of kingship. It was written inside a serekh (9): a frame representing a palace, complete with a panelled façade and with Horus, shown as a falcon, perched on top. In al-ʿIrāqī’s illustration, these elements have undergone an alchemical transmutation: at some point the panels of Amenemhat’s serekh were changed into curious implements, and the falcon into a raven! Despite further distortions, we can just discern the Horus name of Amenemhat II: Heken-em-maat, literally ‘He who rejoices in justice’. On the original monument the preposition ‘in’ was undoubtedly written with an owl. To suit the alchemist’s agenda, it has here become a red eagle (10).

A pharaoh’s throne and birth names were traditionally written inside oval ‘cartouches’, to make them stand out from surrounding text. Unaware of this fact, al-‘Irāqī identifies just such a cartouche as ‘Maria’s bath’, the bain-marie (12) or hot-water bath, which is named after the alchemist Maria the Jewess, and is still used today by the catering industry. The hieroglyphs enclosed by the present cartouche spelled out the throne name of Amenemhat II: Nub-kau-Ra, or ‘The life-forces of Ra (the sun god) are of gold’. In our manuscript a sun-disc (‘Ra’) and a necklace (‘gold’) have been transformed into a human face with neck and arms. Hieroglyphs above the cartouche still recognisably give two well-known royal epithets: ‘the great god, lord of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt)’ (11). Al-‘Irāqī interpreted the whole group as pertaining to ‘roasting’: apparently a hieroglyph representing a basket became a roasting dish, and two stretches of land below it became a grill! The hieroglyphs below the cartouche, in their ancient meaning, claim that the pharaoh is ‘given life forever’ (13).

Monuments of Amenemhat II are rare and his stela is lost, so the exploits of our medieval alchemist hold value to modern Egyptology. Comparing al-‘Irāqī’s drawing with extant stelae of similar date, we can determine more precisely how the stela of Amenemhat would have looked. The stela shown below, displayed in Room 65 of the British Museum, dates from the reign of his grandson, Senwosret III (around 1874–1855 BC). That king’s Horus and throne names again take up two-thirds of the top. The remaining third mentions a deity (‘Horus-son-of-Isis’), of whom the king is said to be ‘beloved’. The texts naming king and god were given opposed orientations, so that the actors involved ‘look’ at each other. The image in the Book of the Seven Climes reveals that Amenemhat, too, was described as ‘beloved’ of a deity (14), whose name must be sought in the hieroglyphs grouped on the left, likewise facing those naming the king. In our 18th-century copy most of these signs have been shuffled about and reshaped beyond recognition, but two of them read probably ‘Wepwa(wet)’, the name of a jackal god (16). Three hieroglyphs crammed in between the god’s and the king’s names, assuming the former’s orientation, cite blessings bestowed on the latter: ‘life, stability, dominion’ (17).

Fig. 5

Stela from the reign of Senwosret III, whose ornamental inscription at the top is laid out very similarly to that on the lost stela of Amenemhat II, as illustrated by al-‘Irāqī. (British Museum, EA 852)

Amenemhat’s ornamental inscription would have been bordered at the bottom by a stroke representing land and at the top by a band representing heaven, supported at the ends by divine sceptres symbolising the full extent of the king’s god-given ‘dominion’. Only the top of the left-hand sceptre (18) has made it into our 18th-century manuscript, but its identity is unmistakable.

The very fact that a hieroglyphic inscription from around 1900 BC can still, in part, be read in an 18th-century copy of a 13th-century Arabic text testifies to the care Arabic scribes took in copying and recopying earlier manuscripts through the centuries. The inclusion of an authentic hieroglyphic text in the Book of the Seven Climes also demonstrates the interest in Egyptian antiquities taken by some medieval Arabic scholars. Al-ʿIrāqī’s alchemical understanding of that text highlights the differences between medieval interpretative frameworks and those employed by the modern science of Egyptology.

More accurate copies of the Amenemhat inscription may still await discovery in unpublished earlier copies of al-‘Irāqī’s Seven Climes in Dublin, Cairo or elsewhere. Furthermore, the identification of more works from which al-ʿIrāqī took his illustrations could bring us closer to the ancient monuments from which some of the illustrations were ultimately copied. We plan to study the other manuscripts of the Book of the Seven Climes and search for the sources of its illustrations. This will throw more light on how al-‘Irāqī adapted his material and may enable a fuller reading of the original inscription of Amenemhat II. It might even reveal further authentic hieroglyphic texts.

The 18th-century copy of al-‘Irāqī’s Book of the Seven Climes is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 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.

References:

Abt, Theodor, The Book of Pictures (Muṣḥaf aṣ-ṣuwar by Zosimos of Panopolis) (Zurich: Living Human Heritage Publications, 2007)

Cook, Michael, ‘Pharaonic History in Medieval Egypt’, Studia Islamica 57, 1983, pp. 67–103

El Daly, Okasha, ‘Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic writings’, in The Wisdom of Egypt: Changing Visions through the Ages (London: UCL Press, 2003), pp. 48–49, Fig. 3:2

El Daly, Okasha, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic writings, ed. Peter Ucko and Timothy Champion (London: UCL Press, 2005), p. 72, Fig. 24

Holmyard, Eric J., ‘Abuʾl-Qāsim al-ʿIrāqī’, Isis 8, 1926, pp. 403–26

al-‘Irāqī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad, ‘Uyūn al-ḥaqā’iq (The Sources of Truths), British Library, Add. MS 23390, ff. 50v–87v, available at http://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100023587816.0x000002

al-‘Irāqī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad, Kitāb al-‘ilm al-muktasab fī zirā‘at adh-dhahab (Book of Knowledge Acquired Concerning the Cultivation of Gold), ed. and trans. Eric J. Holmyard (Paris: Librarie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1923)

Saif, Liana, ‘The cows and the bees: The Arabic tradition of magical artificial generation from pseudo-Plato’s Liber vaccae (Kitāb al-Nawāmīs) to al-‘Irāqī’s ‘Uyūn al-ḥaqā’iq’, FORTHCOMING

Siggel, Alfred, Decknamen in der arabischen alchemistischen Literatur (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1951)

Ullmann, Manfred, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1972), pp. 235–37 and 268

Wells, John W., ‘Sesostris III’s first Nubian campaign, in Essays in Egyptology in Honor of Hans Goedicke, ed. Betsy M. Bryan and David Lorton (San Antonio, TX, 1994), pp. 339–47

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , ,

Study, conservation and display of a rare pair of curtains from Late Antique Egypt

Project curator Amandine Mérat gives us an overview of the historical background of the curtains, whilst conservators Anna Harrison and Monique Pullan describe work carried out in order to prepare them for display.

An exceptionally well preserved pair of curtains is amongst the remarkable objects displayed in the exhibition, Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. They are said to be from Akhmim in Upper Egypt and date from the 6th–7th centuries AD. Acquired for the British Museum by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge in 1897, they are displayed here for only the second time in the Museum’s history. Made of fine linen and colourful wool, the curtains measure more than 2.7m in height by 2.1m in width, and provide a unique example of complete large scale furnishings from Late Antique Egypt.

Because of its dry climate, Egypt preserves a range and abundance of organic material that rarely survive elsewhere. This is particularly true of clothing and furnishing textiles, which provide unparalleled insight into the lives of individuals from Roman, Late Antique and early Islamic times. From the 2nd century AD, Egyptian people progressively gave up mummification, instead burying their dead in the clothes they wore in life, and sometimes wrapping them in furnishing textiles reused as funerary shrouds. This explains why the great majority of the textiles were discovered since the late 19th century in cemeteries and burial contexts. Visible staining from contact with a body suggests that these curtains were used in this way. Although they are now separate, the two textiles were originally sewn together at the top, indicating that they were probably door curtains, before being used as a shroud.

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Colourful classical Graeco-Roman motifs decorate the curtains

The curtains represent a good example of continuity and the re-use of classical themes and imagery throughout Late Antiquity, here in a demonstrably Christian context. The lower part of the curtains is ornamented with birds and vegetal motifs in floral lozenges. At the top is a decorative band containing an inhabited vine scroll, below which erotes (gods of love) holding floral garlands stand between baskets of produce. Below them, two winged nikai (victory figures) hold a wreath containing a jewelled cross with the remains of a Greek inscription. Both erotes and nikai figures come from the Classical, or Graeco-Roman, repertoire, the latter often depicted holding busts of mythological heroes or victorious emperors; later such figures were ‘re-employed’ to present the bust of Christ or other Christian symbols.

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One of the curtains before conservation in 1994

Although at first sight the curtains appear intact, on closer inspection their fragility is obvious. In particular the stained areas which had been in contact with the body are brittle with many holes. The wool motifs retain their vivid colours but sections are missing, possibly eaten by insects during burial.

The curtains were extensively conserved for the 1994 British Museum exhibition Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture. Each curtain was stitched on to new cotton fabric, applied to secure the damaged areas and attach the curtains evenly across their entirety. Working in fine silk threads, this stitching took over 200 hours to complete. The new lining strengthened the ancient textiles and made each curtain appear whole. The missing coloured wools were not replaced; one of the principal ethical guidelines for conservators is to focus on stabilising remaining original material rather than restoration of the original appearance.

In 2013 the curtains were re-assessed for their suitability for the current exhibition. As the largest and most vulnerable textiles to be selected, any conservation issues needed to be raised well in advance with the exhibition planning team. Due to their fragility, it was impossible to gather and drape the curtains as they would have been originally, as this would put too much physical stress on the ancient threads. In order to get as close to their original appearance as possible, a compromise was reached by mounting them on a board angled just off the vertical, which would give them the appearance of being upright and also give some additional support.

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Conservators checking the condition of the curtains in 2015

Examination of the curtains in preparation for the current exhibition showed that the conservation stitching worked 20 years previously was holding the textile securely in position. However, a little more work was required for this near vertical display. Extra lines of stitching were applied in the vertical direction, particularly in the less damaged areas which had not been previously stitched. The curtains were also surface cleaned using a soft sable hair brush and a special vacuum cleaner set to a low setting.

In order to attach the curtains to their fabric-covered display board, Velcro tape was stitched along the top edge of each curtain. Velcro is often used to display textiles because it ensures a continuous, even support along the top of the textile.

Fig. 6

Installing the curtains

During installation, each of the rolled curtains was lifted up to enable the two sides of the Velcro to be connected, also ensuring the top decorative borders were lined up correctly. The curtains were then unrolled as far as the case would allow, with the remaining rolled portion being rolled and placed underneath the support board. Each step of the installation had been planned in advance, using accurate measurements and diagrams to minimise the need for unnecessary handling of these fragile textiles. Finally, the long fringing at the top of each curtain was held in place with strips of semi-transparent net, pinned to stop it flopping forward.

Visitors to the exhibition might be surprised by how much time and effort goes on behind the scenes in order to prepare the displays. A seemingly straight forward task, such as hanging a pair of curtains, in fact required an immense amount of planning and coordination to ensure that these rare and beautiful, yet extremely fragile, textiles could take their place in this show.

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, , , ,

Copts of the Nile: the Coptic community in Egypt today through the lens of photographer Nabil Boutros

Sarah Johnson, Curator of Islamic Collections, British Museum

The exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, examines religious identity in the first millennium AD, when Egypt became first a majority Christian population and later, Muslim. Today, Egyptian Christians, or Copts, are a significant minority. The extraordinary collections of the British Museum allow us to explore religious identities in Egypt up to the present, here through contemporary photography.

In 1986, the artist, Nabil Boutros, decided to return to Egypt after living in France for ten years to explore what it meant to be Egyptian. He had trained as a painter but he decided to take up photography because he found it more useful in studying his identity as an Egyptian.

“The camera was and remains for me an instrument that allows me to go to places where I would not go otherwise. Of course, the point is to collect images; that is the compensation. Without photography, I would not have made the exploration, and I would have not had those contacts…”

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Salam, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of three photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.5-7

Boutros grew up in a Coptic Christian family and decided to document the community in Egypt in order to better understand his own roots and to highlight the modern aspects of Coptic religious practice. Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. According to tradition, the church was founded by Saint Mark in Alexandria during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (r. AD 54–68). Today, Copts make up about ten percent of the Egyptian population with a large diaspora living elsewhere.

Boutros spent seven years, from 1997 to 2004, photographing the Coptic community around Egypt. He visited major historic sites such as the Monastery of Saint Paul (founded 5th century AD) and Deir El-Maymoun (founded AD 361–363), and attended ceremonies that have continued for thousands of years. As a Copt himself, he wanted to highlight the contemporary individuals who visit and worship at these locations, or as he says, “to get as close as possible to the quotidian.”

He always includes people in his photographs, noting that Western photographers often depict these monuments without figures, as if they are no longer in use. His photographs often only show one or two people, even in the midst of large ceremonies. For example, he portrays a single woman in front of a small statue of the Virgin Mary at the pilgrimage to Deir Dronka, near Assiut, which draws thousands of people in August each year. In this way, he draws attention to individual worship and personal stories.

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Vendredi Saint, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of four photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.1-4

“I knew it was a part of me, from my upbringing and my culture, but to be able to make the connection between things from the distant past with more contemporary things strengthened me. To know the history of things that I experienced personally, to understand the historical links allows me to find the foundation; that comforts me a lot, fulfils me.”

Boutros arranges his photographs in the same way as they are found in the screens of Coptic churches where Biblical stories are depicted (polyptychs). However, unlike church paintings, his compositions do not form a clear narrative. Instead each photograph in a composition is taken from a different time and place. Boutros explains that his photographs are not meant to be documentary but instead resist the viewer’s preconceptions about the Coptic community. In his early photography exhibitions, he presented his photographs individually and allowed researchers to add text. However, he found in this case that the researcher’s words took over the images and did not convey his original intentions.

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Prière, from the series Coptes du Nil, by Nabil Boutros, composition of three photographic prints, 1997–2004 (© Nabil Boutros/The British Museum) donated by Rose Issa, 2015,6028.1.8-11

“This experience was a good lesson for me: I understood that if I did not engage in a discourse with the images, the written discourse would take the place of my intent. After that, I started to reclaim my photographs – on Copts, the city, etc. – and to create new compositions working with polyptychs. I also started adding titles, to indicate what I was talking about, but I could no longer content myself with the image alone…I started to complicate things, first by combining groups of black and white images, and then by introducing strips of colour photography in-between the black and white photographs.”

In response to an attack on a Coptic church in December 2010, Boutros and the artist Moataz Nasr, created a poster using another series by Boutros called Egyptians, in which he portrayed himself with different identities throughout the year. The poster included the slogan “We are all Egyptians” (كلنا مصريون), and was popular in Tahrir Square during the revolution.

AllEgyptiansPoster

Nabil Boutros and Moataz Nasr, All Egyptians, 2010 (© Nabil Boutros)

Nabil Boutros was born in Cairo in 1954. He studied decorative arts in Cairo and then painting at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1973). He worked as a painter and lighting designer for theatre before committing himself to photography in 1986.

 

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, Exhibitions, , , ,

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, , , , , ,

The makers of Codex Sinaiticus

Cillian O’Hogan, Research Fellow, University of Waterloo, formerly Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies, British Library

Most books from Graeco-Roman antiquity only survive in fragmentary form – scraps ranging in size from a postage stamp to (if we’re lucky) a few leaves from a codex, or a long section of a papyrus scroll. For books to survive in anything close to their original form is very unusual. It’s with that thought in mind that we should approach Codex Sinaiticus, currently on display in the British Museum’s Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition.

Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest copy of the complete New Testament. Dating from the middle of the fourth century, the manuscript originally contained some 743 leaves (1,486 pages), each measuring some 380 x 345mm – a massive book even by today’s standards. Remarkably, over half of these leaves survive today. The book’s scale was only made possible by the use of parchment (animal skin) rather than papyrus, and the fine quality of the manuscript indicates that substantial resources lay behind its production.

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A rare occurrence of striation (bunching of the animal skin that can occur in the parchment-making process). Codex Sinaiticus, Q64 F4v (Proverbs 7:27–8:34). © British Library Board

Who were the people involved in commissioning and producing this manuscript? Although we will probably never know their names, the detailed research conducted as part of the Codex Sinaiticus Project has shed new light on its creators and scribes. For instance, close examination by conservators revealed that the material chosen contains very few imperfections (which could be caused by ticks or skin diseases, or could occur during the treatment of the animal skin). The scarcity of such imperfections is remarkable. It tells us that the animals were raised with considerable care, that there was some selectivity in deciding which skins to use for parchment, and that the workers who manufactured the parchment were highly skilled. All of this points to considerable resources lying behind the production of Codex Sinaiticus, and suggests that the manuscript was created in a location where skilled workers were already present and accustomed to producing high-quality parchment.

offset marks

Offset of the ink on the facing page visible towards the right-hand edge of the column. Codex Sinaiticus, Q63 F3r (1 Maccabees 12:28–13:3). © British Library Board

After the parchment had been prepared came the exacting task of writing out the text. As a result of the transcription of the entire manuscript for the Codex Sinaiticus Project, four distinct scribes can now be identified in the manuscript. They are referred to as Scribes A, B1, B2, and D. Each scribe appears to have been responsible for producing his own ink, since the differences in degradation of the inks imply that a slightly different preparation recipe was used by each individual scribe. Based on the surviving leaves, it has been suggested that Scribe A copied the bulk of the manuscript (some 995 out of 1,486 pages); while the other three scribes shared the remaining pages roughly equally (scribe B1 copying slightly more than the other two). The scribes also corrected their own work (some also correcting the work of others), and some books within the Codex were clearly worked on by more than one scribe. Based on the patterns of correction, it has been suggested that Scribe D, though he copied relatively few pages himself, was the head scribe, directing the work of the others and correcting it as needed – he appears to have been the most competent of the four scribes.

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Reading of ΑΝΤΙΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ instead of ΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ in the fourth line, corrected by a later reader of the manuscript. Codex Sinaiticus, Q74 F8v (Matthew 13:41–14:15). © British Library Board

Copying a manuscript is a time-consuming and often tedious task, and there are naturally errors that occur in a scribe’s work. Two particularly intriguing errors in Codex Sinaiticus, however, have often been taken as evidence of where the manuscript itself was copied. Both occur in New Testament pages copied by Scribe A. The first, at Matthew 13:54, reads ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΑΝΤΙΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ instead of the correct reading, ΕΙΣ ΤΗΝ ΠΑΤΡΙΔΑ (‘to his homeland’). Antipatris, the placename introduced by Scribe A, is the name of a (relatively minor) town about thirty miles from Caesarea. The second error, at Acts 8:5, gives us ΚΑΙΣΑΡΙΑΣ (Caesarea) instead of the correct ΣΑΜΑΡΙΑΣ (Samaria). (Both readings were corrected by later readers of the manuscript.) When scribes make mistakes, it is often because their minds wander, and it is not uncommon to find words from daily life entering a manuscript instead of what should have been copied. Do these two errors, then, reveal that the manuscript was copied at Caesarea? This would fit with other evidence, such as the fact that the manuscript contains what is known as the ‘Eusebian apparatus’, a method of numbering the Gospels devised by Eusebius of Caesarea probably in the AD 320s. Some have gone even further than this and linked the manuscript with the workshop of Eusebius himself, by pointing to the famous evidence provided in the Life of Constantine (4:36), where Constantine asked Eusebius to provide him with fifty copies of ‘the divine Scriptures’ (θείων γραφῶν). On the other hand, there are counter-arguments to such a hypothesis (most recently set out by Harry Gamble in his contribution to the new book Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript) and we cannot, after all, discount the possibility that the manuscript from which Codex Sinaiticus was copied was the one that contained these errors. Regardless of what one thinks about where the manuscript was produced, however, such errors, along with the many other habits of individual scribes, remind us of the human figures behind the production of this great manuscript.

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Reading of ΚΑΙΣΑΡΙΑΣ instead of ΣΑΜΑΡΙΑΣ in the third line, corrected by a later reader of the manuscript. Codex Sinaiticus, Q87 F3v (Acts 7:55–8:25). © British Library Board

Further information about Codex Sinaiticus can be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website, and in two books published as part of the project: Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible, by D. C. Parker, and Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, edited by S. McKendrick et al.

 

The Codex Sinaiticus is on display in the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs and is on loan from the British Library.

 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, Exhibitions, , ,

The sands of time: ancient Egypt and early film

Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film, British Film Institute

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

The British Museum’s new exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries uses the latest imaging technology to help us understand the realities of life and death in ancient Egypt. We have all seen computer-generated images of mummies brought to life in film and TV, for example in The Mummy film franchise that produced 6 films between 1998 and 2012. But if we go back to the late 19th and early 20th century, the Museum visitor would have had a similar preparation. When cinema was born in the 1890s, audiences that came to see the latest novelty would already have been thoroughly familiar with images of ancient Egypt after a century of Egyptomania – Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, high profile excavations, public mummy unwrappings and Champollion’s well publicised decipherment of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s.

Illustrations of pyramids and tombs littered the illustrated press, and mummies and other artefacts displayed in museums all meant that the iconography of ancient Egypt was instantly recognisable, just as it is today. Elements such as palm trees, sphinxes, hieroglyphs, lotus flowers, the eye of Horus, feathered fans, camels and papyrus scrolls were endlessly recycled for interior décor and stage and film sets. The imagery is very adaptable and very reducible. A simple backdrop of sand, a pyramid and a palm tree and there you are! In the 1890s, ancient Egypt was a source of fascination across the Western world, but particularly in the United States, which adopted it to represent a continuity between ancient civilisation and the emerging status as a superpower: Egypt was preferable to the iconography of ancient Greece and Rome as it neatly side-stepped the legacy of the later civilisations of Europe; the USA wanted something new and unfamiliar, and so ancient Egypt rather ironically becomes associated with modernism. The Western Electric Company built an Egyptian Temple display, complete with glowing electric lights at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, complete with telephone exchange operated by scantily clad Egyptian maids, and a group of men of the same period laying telegraph lines. Ancient Egyptians seem to have been blessed (or cursed) with the power of time travel for hundreds of years. In England, the connection between ancient Egypt and early film is neatly encapsulated in the fact that the first building in England to be influenced by the Egyptian style – the legendary Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (completed 1812, demolished 1905) – was the site of the public showings of some of the earliest films.

Not only a decorative scheme, ancient Egypt was packed full of stories with great potential for literature and the screen: Bible stories about pharaohs and Exodus, but particularly queenly power, such as the figure of Cleopatra incorporating the exotic, the erotic, and a certain level of allowable nudity. Other narratives had a horror element: talented architects (such as Imhotep) who end up walled up inside tombs, over-mighty kings, slaves, obsession with death and the afterlife (reserved for the powerful), mummification and reincarnation. A recurring theme is one of magic and transformation – mummies come alive, they turn into other things, scarabs and jewels of Egyptian princesses are cursed and change people or carry people across time. Cinema’s unique property is the ability to show these transformations and visualise stories of past civilisations as if they were really happening.

As ancient Egypt was discovered through its archaeological remains, so the stories we have are very focused on architecture and particularly the architecture of death, which lends itself well to film adaptation. Film’s ability to revivify scenes lost in time, both past and future, can re-people an environment that is generally speaking one of dessiccation. Ancient Egypt is the furthest great civilisation that 19th-century man could get back to in historical terms – the point where history met myth. The bleak romance of those cold sands of time – in which a man’s footprint makes an impression that is instantly obliterated by the wind – lent a gravitas to stories which could be exploited by popular culture including film echoing the pharaohs themselves, who left no linear history of their civilisation, just an endless succession of repeated histories, each king trying to destroy the past of his immediate predecessor. Only with the supreme effort of an over-mighty ruler with thousands of slaves could some permanent impression on the landscape be made.

Statue of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias: ... My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Statue of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias:
… My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

That grandeur and melancholy about Egypt that we find in Shelley’s Ozymandias lends a gravitas to films set in Egypt, as it plays on our long-term preoccupation with our origins, the rise and fall of civilisations, and the fear that everything we hold dear will one day be dust. This epic quality is probably only equalled by stories set in the distant future, in space.

The reason that ancient Egypt is endlessly recycled through film, starting from these earliest examples, is that it plays to the strengths of cinema itself; the bringing closer of the real landscape seen in travelogues and newsreel report and cinema’s greatest magic trick, rendering the familiar stories through the instantly recognisable iconography and visualising the romanticised past.


The British Film Institute (BFI) exists to promote greater understanding and appreciation of, and access to, film and moving image culture in the UK.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

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A new look at ancient Egyptian textiles

textile fragmentAmandine Mérat (Curator) and Emily Taylor (Museum Assistant), British Museum

We have recently taken the opportunity to audit, document and re-house the textiles dating to the 1st millenium AD – around 1,800 in number – that are looked after by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (AES). The main aims of this project are the re-organisation and distribution of the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic textiles into a coherent and accessible storage system, along with the improvement of their documentation by adding photographs, technical analysis, iconographic and cultural information.

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870).  Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870). Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

As in many museums today, the British Museum’s Egyptian textiles collection is mostly composed of fragmentary pieces, acquired through excavation and purchase in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, decorative elements considered as spectacular or aesthetically pleasing were often cut out from large pieces when discovered, as only the most vibrant and colourful pieces were wanted by European collectors. However, this meant that they were also cut off from their archaeological contexts. It was for this reason that, with the exception of two great sets of textiles from excavations at Qasr Ibrim and Wadi Sarga, we decided to reorder the Museum’s collection not by provenance or date – as these are rarely known – but by technique. Indeed, a close visual examination of technique, and drawing on knowledge of their cultural background, allows us to determine the possible original function of many of the textiles, essentially fragments of garments and home furnishing originating from burial contexts.

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

We began our audit by classifying the textiles by their primary weaving technique – tapestry, brocade, embroidery etc. This process helped us to work out how much storage space was required for each group, taking into account the fragility of the textiles, but also the need for easy access and the possibility of new items joining the collection at a later date. Each primary group was then sub-divided, on the basis of shape or iconography of the textiles.

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Drawer by drawer, the technical and iconographic analyses for each textile were completed by Amandine Merat, the curator responsible for the project. Some pieces had already been studied by Hero Granger-Taylor in the 1990s; in those cases, her detailed notes were checked and annotated where necessary. However, a great majority of the textiles had never been analysed before. For these, the fibres were identified, measurements were taken, techniques carefully analysed and a complete description of the piece and its iconography was made. Original function of the textiles and dating were re-attributed where necessary.

Once the technical information was recorded, the textiles were photographed by Emily Taylor. A general shot of front and back was taken, an arrow included to indicate the direction of the warp of the fabric. Detailed macro shots were then taken to record any small details or highlight interesting elements of design, use or technique. The textiles were then re-housed in acid free tissue, and melinex sleeves where possible, and then placed on Correx boards within their storage drawers to enable ease of handling.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

All relevant information was recorded in a spreadsheet by our volunteer Ruiha Smalley, before being standardised and uploaded into the British Museum’s collection database, through which it will soon be available to the public via the collection online.

The post was updated on 24 June to correct a date in the first sentence. The textiles date to the 1st millennium AD, not BC.


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