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Conservation of papyrus (Bridget Leach)

Conservation of the papyrus fragments found in 1998 in Senneferi's burial chamber was continued this season from 28 September to 11 October 2000. The fragments awaiting conservation from the previous year were from Shaft 1, Room 3, levels 1-4. Most of those from level 1 had been treated in 1999 and the remainder of this group was treated first. The greatest number of fragments of the remaining papyri were from level 3.

As time was limited, the approach this season was to examine, as far as possible, the contents of the remaining boxes of unconserved fragments and treat the larger pieces from each context first. This was to ensure that if time did not allow for completion of the work the fragments that were left would be the smaller or blank ones.

The method for conservation and mounting was the same as that used the previous season. Again, the aim was to flatten out the curled and brittle fragments so that they could be safely mounted and photographed. To do this the fragments were placed in a humidification tray, made up of a damp layer of blotting paper with a layer of Gore-tex (a membrane of polytetrafluoroethylene on a fabric backing) on top. The fragments are placed on the Gore-tex layer inside the tray, which is then covered with polythene. The Gore-tex layer allows only water vapour, not droplets, to pass through it, consequently the humidification of the fragments is very gentle. After approximately 15 minutes the fragments are flexible enough to be uncurled and gradually flattened out, and if not too fragile, to be and cleaned lightly by removing dirt or deposits with tweezers or a very soft brush. Each fragment was repaired by applying small tabs, pre-cut pieces of long-fibred, strong Japanese paper (Usomino Hakusen), to the fractured and weak areas with methyl cellulose adhesive (Culminal MC 2000, 4% in water). When sufficiently aligned and repaired the fragments were dried between an interleaving layer of Bondina (a fine 100% polyester fabric) and layers of dry blotting paper under a light glass weight. After approximately 24 hours the fragments could be mounted. The papyri were mounted on trays inside an archival box in the same way as last season. Each tray consisted of a layer of acid-free board, on this lay a sheet of good quality rag paper to which the fragments were attached with tabs. Soft tissue was then laid over the fragments to protect the surface of the papyri, and another sheet of rag paper. All these layers were cut to the size of the box to hold the contents firmly in position.

It was noted last season that many fragments had a different appearance to that of the Book of the Dead of Senneferi. The boxes containing fragments from Room 3, levels 2-4 continued to yield more of this type of material. The greatest amount of it was found in Room 3, level 3 where over half the material belonged to this type, whereas in the other contexts it made up less than a quarter of the fragments of Book of the Dead of Senneferi. To try and establish whether there were in fact two separate funerary papyri in the chambers, all the fragments with this different appearance were picked out from the remaining contexts and conserved. Unfortunately, many of the fragments were very small and degraded, but even on the larger fragments no text bearing the owner's name was revealed and the matter remains inconclusive. If the papyri could be reconstructed photographically, even partly, it may be possible to deduce the height of both types of document, as any difference in height measurement would indicate that there two different manuscripts.

During conservation work a surprise came to find some small fragments written with hieroglyphs in white, or white over red ink. In fact there were only five fragments of this type, three from Room 3 level 2, one from level 3 and the fifth (with the white ink just barely visible), from level 4. Papyrus with text written in this way is extremely unusual. The only other example known is the Papyrus of Henutmehyt from the 19th dynasty, in the Museum of Reading.2 The white writing on the Papyrus of Henutmehyt has been identified as steatite, not the calcium carbonate commonly used as a white pigment.

The constraints of time meant that at the end of the season there are still some fragments from the Book of the Dead of Senneferi left unconserved from Room 3 levels 2-4. Approximately 180 fragments were treated and mounted for photography this season. For safe keeping, some miscellaneous small finds of papyri, found before the 1998 season and not from the burial chamber of Senneferi, were repaired and mounted together in one glass frame.

2. See J.H. Taylor, `The burial assemblage of Henutmehyt: inventory, date and provenance', in W.V. Davies (ed.), Studies in Egyptian Antiquities. A tribute to T.G.H. James (British Museum Occasional Paper 123, 1999), 63-4, pl. XVI.

© Nigel Strudwick 1997-2014