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Conservation of papyrus (Bridget Leach)

Conservation work on the papyrus fragments found in the underground chambers cut for the burial of Senneferi during the 1998 season was undertaken from December 9th to 23rd 1999. The fragments were housed in perspex boxes where they had been placed the previous season. The majority of these fragments were from Room 3 but there was also a substantial amount from Room 2. Several of these had been conserved the previous year by Julie Dawson.

The papyri appeared to be in reasonable condition but were very fragile, brittle, curled up and twisted. The fragments from Room 2 (c. 115) were conserved first. It was estimated that there were in excess of 500 fragments contained in the boxes, although many of these were very small (approximately 1 ¥ 1 cm).

Method: The method of treatment was to remove and separate the individual pieces from the boxes and place them in a humidification tray. This tray consisted of a layer of damp blotting paper over two layers of goretex. 2 This material only allows water vapour to pass through it so that humidification is gentle with no water droplets. The tray was then covered with polythene. After approximately 15 minutes the fragments were flexible enough to untangle and straighten out. At this stage any deposits from the context and surface dirt could be lightly brushed away, including much insect frass which was picked off with tweezers.

When the fragments were reasonably flat they were repaired with small tabs of Japanese paper using methyl cellulose adhesive (Culminal MC 2000, 4% in water). This process was repeated until the papyri were realigned and repaired adequately. Repairing the fragments was the most time-consuming part of the operation, as literally hundreds of small repairs needed to be applied to the verso of the pieces to support the very fine but damaged papyrus. They were then placed between two sheets of thick blotting paper with an interleaving layer of Bondina (a fine 100% polyester fabric) under a light glass weight. After 24 hours the fragments were dry and ready to be mounted.

Mounting: An archival box containing layers of acid-free card, good quality rag paper and soft tissue to protect the papyrus surface were cut to the size of the box. Each fragment was mounted on to a sheet of the paper with Japanese paper tabs, and then the tissue and another sheet of paper were then placed on top. Each layer was supported on the acid-free card to form a type of tray which could be safely stacked on top of one another in the box. Plastazoate was used to make up the depth of box and ensure that contents were held firmly inside.

Observations: During conservation it was noted that the appearance of some of the fragments was different from the others. The majority of the pieces belong to the Book of the Dead of Senneferi where his name appears on it. This papyrus is very finely manufactured, and has wide columns with beautifully executed hieroglyphs. However some fragments were a much whiter colour, and generally in a worse state of repair with a smaller text. No name has been positively identified on these fragments so there is the possibility that there are two separate documents. However, if more fragments could be conserved, it is likely that this question could be clarified.

During the repair of the fragments it became clear that many of the pieces had been torn, as opposed to fractured, which makes a cleaner break. Also the fragments from the context of Room 3 were in a slightly more degraded condition than those from Room 2. In addition, several quite large fragments from the top of the original roll were among those found in Room 2, but none were found from the bottom of the roll until conservation started on the contents of Room 3.

The Book of the Dead of Senneferi appears to have several delicately coloured vignettes, unfortunately none yet complete. So far they show a palette of red, white and yellow, with the red and white mixed to give varying hues.

Several smaller fragments were joined together during conservation where they suggested themselves obviously, but there was not sufficient time to attempt any more than this. The ease with which joins were made suggests that more could be made between the fragments already conserved and those which still need to be treated. It is doubtful whether the Book of the Dead of Senneferi is complete, but until all the fragments are conserved it is impossible to estimate. Approximately half of the material was flattened and repaired this season.




Goretex is a membrane of polytetrafluoroethylene on a fabric backing.

© Nigel Strudwick 1997-2014