Conserving Ancient Texts

Over the last two decades conservators at the University of Michigan have become expert in the complex and painstaking art of conserving papyri. The photographs in this case show the main tasks conservators perform to conserve papyri and other writing materials used in ancient Egypt optimally and to house them safely. The differences between the appearance of the papyri before and after conservation are very clear.

image of papyrus before conservation Papyrus. P. Mich. inv. 48 (account, 3rd–2nd century B.C.E.), recto, before conservation

Before treatment dirt and many folds, both major and minor, obscured the text on this papyrus. Fibers with flaking ink were separating from the papyrus, especially at the edges, and were in danger of breaking off. A papyrus in this condition would be extremely difficult for researchers to study.

image of papyrus after conservation Papyrus. P. Mich. inv. 48, recto, after conservation

The papyrus needed major conservation treatment. After careful evaluation and written and photo documentation, the conservator dampened the papyrus between blotting paper to clean and straighten it. Each fiber out of alignment was meticulously coaxed into the correct position.

image of papyrus before conservation Papyrus. P. Mich. inv. 424 (account, 3rd-4th century C.E.), recto, before conservation

Before treatment the layers of this papyrus were separating in several places; the piece was dirty and bent into many minor and major folds. Fibers with flaking ink were separating from the papyrus, especially at the edges, and were in danger of breaking off. Large portions of the text were obscured.

image of papyrus after conservation Papyrus. P. Mich. inv. 424, recto, after conservation

After evaluation and documentation, the papyrus was gently dampened between sheets of blotting paper. The damp blotters cleaned the surface and relaxed the fibers so they could be unfolded and straightened.

The larger fragments also needed to be aligned. For alignment, the conservator worked closely with the papyrologist: the papyrologist studied the text to propose the correct position of each detached piece, while the conservator examined the physical characteristics of the papyrus fibers in order to fit each back into place. Note the join where two sheets of papyrus were pasted together in the making of the scroll (Greek kollesis) about 13 cm. (5 inches) from the right.

image of wooden tablets before conservation Wooden tablets, before conservation housing

The wooden tablets were previously stored wrapped in paper and layered in cardboard or tin boxes. The inventory numbers were written on the crumbling, acidic paper wraps.

image of wooden tablets after conservation Wooden tablets, after conservation housing

The inventory number was written on a slip of Tyvek™ with a black pen and threaded through existing holes in the wooden tablet. Boats for the rectangular wooden tablets were constructed from archival corrugated board lined with Ethafoam™.

image of ostraca before conservation Ostraca, before conservation housing

In the early years, ostraca (potsherds) in the University of Michigan collection were housed in cardboard and wooden boxes, within which they were packed in cotton wool or wrapped in paper. Inventory numbers were written on loose scraps of paper or on a gummed label stuck on the pottery.

image of ostraca after conservation Ostraca, after conservation housing

Each ostracon was placed in its own custom-sized "boat": a shallow dish made from one-eighth-inch-thick Ethafoam™ pinched at the corners and stapled with non-rusting staples. The boats protect the ostraca from bumping or rubbing against each other. Because the pieces are not wrapped, it is easy to see and select a particular item from the drawer, thereby minimizing handling and the risk of dropping the piece. Inventory numbers were written on each boat and directly onto each ostracon using white acrylic paint on top of a layer of acrylic resin (Acryloid B-72); the number can be removed without damage if necessary.

image of papyrus Papyrus. P. Mich. inv. 4207 (payment document, 184 B.C.E.), recto, before and after conservation

This collection of papyrus fragments was originally repaired with white paper tape, which is not good for papyrus. The adhesive on the tape was water soluble and could be removed by dampening the tape with a small amount of water on a brush.

image of tiny pieces of papyrus "Cornflakes"

The University Library has several boxes filled with thousands of pieces of papyrus. Many of these small fragments have writing on them, which could be significant. Sorting for features such as color, language, and handwriting in order to match up parts from the same document will provide challenging projects for years to come. Students from the Department of Classical Studies have begun to study and sort through some of them.

image of conservation tools Conservation Tools.

The conservator works on papyrus using 2x to 10x magnification with an array of precision tools. Items pictured are: a photographer's bulb and brush, to blow away sand or dust; small weights covered in fabric; dishes with tiny (1 x 3 mm) slips of gummed tissue for bridging and mending; dishes with water and adhesive; fine watercolor brushes; a variety of spatulas and tweezers for handling papyrus and fibers; and a scalpel and scissors for preparing repair tissue.

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