Focus on papyrus

Ranging in date from 1800 BC to AD 800, the Chester Beatty Library’s collection of papyrus includes rolls, codices and individual documents from Ancient, Roman, and Coptic Egypt. It includes many works of outstanding importance, with unique documents and, in some cases, the earliest known copies of particular texts. At the end of last week Dr Jill Unkel (Curator of Western Collections) and I attended the third Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation meeting which was hosted by Cambridge University Library (29-30 June). It provides a unique forum for conservators, curators and researchers to meet and discuss the challenges they face around access and preservation of their papyrus collections. I won’t go into detail about each lecture, but the full programme is available here.

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Looking at papyrus in the Conservation & Preservation Department at Cambridge University Library.

The first day started with a fascinating series of talks from colleagues Catherine Ansorge, Anna Johnson, Yasmin Faghihi and Amélie Deblauwe introducing the participants to the papyrus collection at Cambridge University Library. Catherine outlined the formation of the collection, Anna discussed building a papyrus conservation programme from scratch; Yasmin reported on the cataloguing of the Michaelides collection of Arabic papyri and Amélie the way in which digitisation is carried out at the Library.

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Dr Ben Outhwaite introducing the exhibition Discarded History.

We then had a chance to see selected highlights from the collection in a special display after coffee. This was followed by a visit to the Library’s conservation studio where Anna demonstrated the challenges she’s faces conserving the papyrus collections as well as the successes. Dr Ben Outhwaite (Head of the Genizah Research Unit) then gave us a guided tour of the Discarded History exhibition. Ben presented the Chester Beatty annual lecture on the Genizah collection in 2015 and it was fascinating to have an opportunity to see some of the wonderful artefacts he has uncovered on display. Full details on the exhibition are available here, it is well worth a visit.

The afternoon focused on lessons learnt digitising and housing papyrus collections with papers from the British Library, London and Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin. These were particularly useful, as the CBL is about to start in-house digitisation and the papyrus will be a key priority. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London presented a case study with some imaginative initiatives and very successful outcomes on promoting understanding, access and care of its papyrus collection.

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A rare opportunity to look at the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Book of the Dead of Ramose.

The day finished with a walk to the Fitzwilliam Museum where Head of Conservation, Julie Dawson, presented a two-year research project on the conservation and mounting of The Book of the Dead of Ramose. This fine example of painted and gilded papyrus from the Dynasty 19 (1290-1275BC) was excavated in a thousand pieces in 1922. The group was lucky enough to have a private viewing of the conserved sheets, which due to the sensitive nature of the pigment hasn’t been on display for ten years. It really was the perfect way to end the first day.

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CBL Pma 5, an unconserved section of the Manichean papyri.

The group was initiated by Ilona Regulski, Curator of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum in 2015 and one of the agreed aims of the meetings has been to draw up a ‘papyrus handbook’, focusing on cataloguing papyri. The second day started with a very useful group discussion chaired by Ilona on shared terminology, best practice and as it transpired the variances used in different collections, which was fascinating.

The strength of this meeting is having an opportunity to share current projects and challenges with experts; with this in mind, Jill and I presented a paper entitled The Trouble with Mani. The Library’s remarkable Manichean papyrus codices have a complicated history. Written in Coptic and dated to the fourth century, they include unique sacred texts of a lost religion. They survived the almost total destruction of Manicheanism as well as World War II and the chaos of its aftermath. The poorly preserved papyrus was discovered in 1930 and painstakingly conserved by Dr Hugo Ibscher and his son Rolf. However it remains a complex puzzle for both researchers and conservators due to the challenges of folios in sellotape-sealed Perspex frames and the significant sections that remain unconserved. It will be the topic of a dedicated post in the future.

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Dr Jill Unkel presenting The Trouble with Mani.

Helen Sharp (British Museum) then presented a paper on the recently acquired de Vaucelles papyrus; following removal from old linings and housing she was able to piece the scroll back together in the correct order which was extraordinary. Excellent presentations followed from conservators and curators at the Palau Ribes Collection, Barcelona; Stanford University Libraries, California and John Rylands Library, Manchester. Marieka Kaye (University of Michigan Library) has been exploring new glass technology developed for phone and touch screens and presented her research on how this strong flexible material might be adapted for glazing papyri. Myriam Krutzsch (Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin) concluded the meeting by presenting a list of common damage caused by well-intentioned but poorly judged repairs to papyrus and their effects on the preservation of the texts.

I would like to thank the Cambridge University Library for organising such a fascinating two-day papyrus meeting, chaired by Yasmin Faghihi. It was a great opportunity to meet curators and conservators to discuss the common problems we all face in caring for this incredible material and I’m already looking forward to attending next year’s meeting.

Jessica Baldwin, Head of Collections and Conservation

 

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