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, , , , , ,

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

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