By Jessica Byler
This fall, I started a survey of our Egyptian papyrus collection thanks to an ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt) grant. The goals of the survey include preparing and rehousing the collection to be moved to a new storeroom, identifying unstable papyri that need to be treated, and getting some of the papyri ready for exhibit. The Penn Museum is in the process of redesigning the Ancient Egyptian and Nubian Galleries, and the curators have identified around 70 papyri they would like to include. Part of my job is treating and rehousing these papyri and making recommendations on their display.
What is Papyrus?
The papyri in our collection are mostly manuscripts. A sheet of papyrus is made of two cross-laminated layers of thin fiber strips made from the stems of the papyrus plant (cyperus papyrus). One layer of fibers is laid vertically, and the other is laid on top horizontally, creating a sheet with a grid pattern. Individual sheets were then overlapped and joined to create rolls. These rolls could be used as a single, long sheet or could be cut down as needed. The side with the horizontal fibers is called the recto (think “right side”), and the side with the vertical fibers is called the verso (think “reverse”). Scribes often wrote on the recto along the horizontal fibers, though some scribes wrote against the fibers or on both sides of the sheet.
Looking for a join helps identify the recto. Most joins are horizontal fibers to horizontal fibers, though some are horizontal to vertical. Look along the horizontal fibers and see if they continue across the sheet. If they do not line up or if there is a clear overlap, that’s likely a join.
Scribes used brushes or reed pens to write on the papyrus sheets. Inks were made from mixing ground up pigments into a binder. The most common ink was carbon black or soot bound with gum to make black ink. Scribes also sometimes used red ink made from red ochre, iron gall, and sepia, among other pigments. Some papyri are thickly painted with gypsum, metal oxides, and earth pigments.
Penn Papyrus Survey
The Penn Museum has around 1200-1800 papyri featuring a wide range of personal, legal, administrative, literary, and religious texts in six languages: Arabic, Greek, Coptic, Hebrew, Demotic, and Hieratic. The collection spans around 4000 years, from the Old Kingdom to Islamic Egypt. These include Books of the Dead, Homer’s Iliad, and the Gospel of St. Matthew. There are also groups of small fragments which have not been reconstructed or studied. The Penn Museum’s collection of papyri has never been the subject of a concerted conservation campaign – until now.
Most of the collection is currently encapsulated in Mylar and stored flat in manila folders or sandwiched between two glass plates. I am surveying the collection at the object-level, one by one. I examine, measure, and record each piece, noting the structure of the papyrus, how it is housed, old mends or treatments, condition issues, and if it needs to be rehoused or conserved. I follow the examination and documentation with photography. Images are available on our Digital Collections webpage. Hopefully with the new photos and documentation, this collection will be more accessible to papyrologists and scholars around the world.
Eventually, the information on the Penn Museum papyri collection documented in this survey will be included in the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) database, where only a small fraction of our collection is represented today. There are a number of great resources if you would like to know more about the structure and conservation of papyrus. The University of Michigan, which holds the largest collection of papyri in North America, is active in papyrological research and education. The Brooklyn Museum and NYU have both recently done similar projects and have great blogs about their collections as well.