29 December 2015 • 10:30 am
Faith after the pharaohs: Egyptian papyri conservation
Bridget Leach, Conservator: Pictorial Art, British Museum
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.