Papyri Project

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.

E16423, a private letter in Arabic

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.

A piece of modern papyrus through transmitted light
E2751, some vertical fibers are missing, revealing the horizontal fibers from the other side

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.

E16323, horizontal to horizontal join. The red lines indicate the direction of the fibers and join.
E16411B, vertical to horizontal join. The red lines indicate the direction of the fibers and 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.

E3068, a painted papyrus manuscript
83-1-1I, a manuscript with both carbon black and red ink

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.

Photographing papyrus using a copy stand

More Information

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.

This project is funded by the  Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF).  The AEF is supported by an  endowment  established  with  funds  from  the  United  Stated  Agency  for  International Development (USAID).

Transformation Tidbits on a Tuesday

By: Anna O’Neill, Jonathan Stevens, and Céline Wachsmuth

It’s Tuesday! And time for another transformation post. As the Kaipure team is wrapping up our work, we have been reflecting upon how different everything has become from when we first started the project in June 2017, almost a year ago. We have seen many transformations, both big and small. Here are some snapshots of transformations we’ve seen throughout the project:

First thing’s first, we have our simple, but satisfying, surface cleaning transformation. Jonathan shares one of his blocks in the middle of cleaning:

Photo by Jonathan Stevens Cleaning in progress. Most of the background of this limestone block has been dry-cleaned using white rubber erasers, vulcanized latex sponges and cosmetic sponges. The brighter areas are clean and any area that looks gray has not been cleaned yet.

Cleaning is fun, especially when the results are so nice and neat!

Anna had the chance to rejoin two block fragments, something that we haven’t been able to do much of because of the size and weight of most of the blocks, even though some are broken and we know how they fit together.

Photos by Anna O’Neill For this piece, both the main block and missing fragment were cleaned and the break edges consolidated with 2% w/v Paraloid B-72. Then the fragment was adhered with 40% w/v Paraloid B-72 and held in place with straps overnight until the join had set. The cracks were filled with a white Paraloid B-72/glass microballoon mixture, which provides support to areas of loss and helps to protect the fragile edges along the break. The fill was then painted with Golden acrylic paints to integrate it with the rest of the piece.

One of the last blocks Céline had the chance to work on also had one of the most fragile surfaces of any of the blocks. It was a lengthy, but incredible treatment. Both images below show the process of stabilizing the block’s surface. After cleaning, loose and lifting fragments were secured by injecting a 30% solution of Paraloid B-72 in acetone beneath the flakes. The unprotected edges of the flakes were supported and protected with a mixture of Paraloid B-72 and glass microballoons, applied by injection with a syringe, and then in-painted with acrylics to match the surface.

Photos by Céline Wachsmuth Detail of before, during, and post treatment of a section of the block. There was significant lifting and destabilization over much of the block’s surface.

Photos by Céline Wachsmuth Detail of before, during, and post treatment of a section of the block. This section was floating on the surface, meaning it was no longer attached.

Stay tuned for a final post about the finishing touches on the Kaipure Tomb Chapel project.

The Kaipure Conservation Project is funded through a generous grant from the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF) which was established though a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

ARCE’s 66th Annual Meeting

Last week, I attended the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), which was in Houston, Texas. I was invited by Dr. David Silverman, Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian Section, to speak on a panel on the Bersheh funerary equipment of Ahanakht, which we have been working on here in the Artifact Lab. When the Artifact Lab opened in fall 2012, we began working on this material, which included conservation and a full transcription, translation, and analysis of the inscribed texts.

The panel at ARCE included Dr. Silverman, who spoke about the discoveries that he has made about Ahanakht’s funerary equipment, including translations of the texts on the outer coffin and the discovery of canopic box pieces, previously thought to be pieces of an offering box, or additional pieces of the coffins. Leah Humphrey, a PhD student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, presented her work on the transcription and translation of the edge inscriptions on the outer coffin boards. I spoke about the conservation of the boards, and the technical study that we have carried out to better understand their materials and technology (my presentation was co-authored by Alexis North, another conservator in our department).

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

Leah Humphrey, presenting at the ARCE annual meeting

In addition to our panel, there were two sessions devoted to ongoing work in Abydos, which included presentations by Dr. Josef Wegner, who spoke about the recent discovery of the pharaoh Senebkay, Dr. Jane Hill, who presented the forensic examination of Senebkay’s remains, and two Penn graduate students, Paul Verheist and Shelby Justl, who spoke about projects related to the excavations and finds from the recent seasons in Abydos.

It was my first time attending the conference, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing all the talks and meeting lots of new people. A PDF containing the full list of speakers and abstracts (in the 2015 abstract booklet) can be found here.

While in Houston, I also had the opportunity to visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), and in particular, their recently-installed Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Entrance to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

Another view of one of the galleries in the Hall of Ancient Egypt

The exhibit was very impressive, and consists of objects from the HMNS collection, but also large loans from institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Michael C. Carlos Museum, and the Egyptian collection at Chiddingstone Castle. I was especially interested to see some objects similar to those I have worked on or am working on in the Artifact Lab, including this falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, which is similar to our own corn mummy and coffin:

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

A falcon-headed coffin for a corn mummy, on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum

and the coffin of Neskhons, made of painted wood, from the Third Intermediate Period, and similar to the painted wooden coffin currently in the lab:

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

The coffin of Neskhons, on loan to HMNS from a private collection

I left the ARCE meeting feeling invigorated to return to work, not only because I was relieved that my presentation was behind me, but mostly because of the new things that I learned, arming me with new resources, questions, and directions to take in my own projects. I think this is the best that you can hope for when attending a conference!