Image of a box of glazed papyri at the Fifth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting.

Review of the Fifth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting

3 October, 2019

Today’s post is written by guest blogger Jen Bowens, Paper Conservation Student at Northumbria University, U.K.

This summer I had the opportunity to attend the fifth annual meeting of curators, conservators and researchers to discuss issues pertaining to the care and display of papyrus. The meeting was held at the Chester Beatty, with a visit to Trinity College Dublin. The Chester Beatty holds papyrus in various forms ranging from c.1160 BC and 6-8th century CE, including some mysterious documents from the Manichaean religion, Biblical papyri, and ancient Egyptian texts. The aim of this annual meeting is to allow curators, conservators and researchers to share ideas, troubleshoot common issues and promote continued innovation in collection care and digitisation. It was an honour to meet everyone who came to speak. In this review I will briefly touch on the kinds of topics that were tackled by the speakers over the course of what proved to be a fascinating couple of days.

Jessica Baldwin, Head of Collections and Conservation at the Chester Beatty, welcomed us on the morning of the 20 June and introduced us to the exciting programme to follow. The first session centred on the collection of papyri at the Chester Beatty. Felicia Tan, Registrar, gave us a run down on the work that has gone into cataloguing the museum’s collection for digitisation. Next Dr Jill Unkel, Curator of Western Collections, revealed some of the secrets of the seven manuscripts found in Medinet Madi relating to the lost religion of Manichaeism. Collaboration with the University of Hamburg provided technology to study the documents. Professor Paul Mirecki from the University of Kansas explained to us how the jumbled-up leaves of the Manichaean Synaxies Codex were conserved in the 1950s and how this helped in finding the original sequencing of the leaves.

After a break, we were very lucky to be shown some of the Chester Beatty’s papyrus collection, including the impressive range of Biblical papyri, some beautiful examples of Coptic binding, a scroll containing an ancient Egyptian love poem and the Contendings of Horus and Seth (Pap 1.2), and the Book of the Dead of Lady Neskhons (Pap XXI.4).

Image of participants looking at papyrus, including the Book of the Dead of Lady Neskhons (CBL Pap XXI.4), in the Chester Beatty Reference Library, at the Fifth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting.
Looking at papyrus, including the Book of the Dead of Lady Neskhons (CBL Pap XXI.4), in the Chester Beatty Reference Library.

The afternoon sessions covered recent research in papyrology and conservation treatments. Marius Gerhardt and Jörg Graf from the University Library Leipzig presented their work; collaborating with papyrologists and conservators in Egypt, the benefits of which were clear. Daniela Colomo and Mark de Kreij from the University of Oxford enlightened the delegates on ancient conservation techniques, particularly those used in Graeco-Roman Egyptian documents. Helbertijn Krudop then showed us some examples of late conservation treatments that failed and even caused further damage to the papyrus collection at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities. The evidence from previous conservation efforts has helped to contextualise the Museum’s largest papyrus, the Kenna Book. Conservators Alexandra Nederlof and Femke Prinsen went into further detail about the issues caused by treatments the Kenna Book has undergone over the past 200 years and their work to repair this damage. Paola Boffula Alimeni of Macquarie University gave a fascinating speech on the significance of the physical and chemical makeup of papyri, and how determining the way a fragment has been made could help conservators deduce the best course of treatment for that particular object. Sonia Antoniazzi and Viviana Goggi, owners of conservation and restoration company Soseishi S.N.C, talked about effective methods of removing harmful secondary supports from papyri, particularly highlighting a sandwiching technique that has proven useful at the Museo Egizio in Turin. Finally, we were given an impressive presentation by Myriam Krutzsch about her reassembling of a fragmented medical text, furthering researchers understanding of the text itself.

At the end of the day we were invited to attend the opening of The Mystery of Mani exhibition. There was a wine reception and delegates got a first look at the display—a must see if you’re in Dublin before 19 January 2020.

On day two of the meeting, the first session focused on issues of collection care. Marieka Kaye got the ball rolling with a presentation about her experience handling and housing large papyrus fragments for the University of Michigan. Yasmeen Khan brought forward ideas for the preservation of an oversized, crumbling papyrus roll from the Rare Book Division at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Eve Menei and Lieve Watteeuw discussed the ongoing conservation and rehousing efforts at KU Leuven University of a collection of papyrus fragments from Khirbet Mird, with significant improvements being made to their condition in recent years. Tatyana Bitler dealt with previous repairs and housing mistakes in her work with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Her talk focused on the techniques she used to undo some of the damage caused by the well-intentioned conservation efforts of the 1950s.

Image of a session of the Fifth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting held at the Chester Beatty in Dublin, 20–21 June 2019.
A session of the Fifth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting held at the Chester Beatty in Dublin, 20–21 June 2019.

After a quick break, we began the next session with Melody Chen introducing us to a huge project that began in 2017 in New York University, where over 2000 papyri and ostraca were given conservation treatment and suitable housing as well as being documented for digitisation. Melody showed us some of the new technology that helped make this project possible. Federica Micucci updated us on the ongoing cataloguing project at the British Library. Hundreds of Greek papyri have been added to the online catalogue and a collaborative effort has been made with other European projects. Claudia Kreuzsaler raised the issue of related materials in her talk, asking: how do we best use resources and space to preserve the history of an object? And how do we sort the many and various related materials that tell that history? Our final talk at the Chester Beatty was from Almuth Märker. She told us the great success story of the Coptic papyri and ostraca collection in Leipzig University Library. A series of collaborations has meant that the collection could be glazed and documented, with many items being studied in depth. Almuth gave a small taster of what we can expect to learn about at the next Papyrus Meeting in Leipzig 2020.
After breaking for lunch, we made our way over to Trinity College, where we were given the chance to look at some items from the Old Library’s collection of papyri, including two beautifully illuminated Books of the Dead. Susie Bioletti, Keeper of Preservation and Conservation, told us the story of how the collection came to be at Trinity, Paper Conservator Clodagh Neligan showed us the continued conservation efforts that had been made to preserve the collection and Professor Brian McGing was on hand to give a deeper insight into the origins of some of the Greek fragments from the Petrie collection. We were also given access to explore the Long Room and the much-celebrated Book of Kells exhibit, a real treat to end a fascinating two days.
As a student of paper conservation, the Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting was a brilliant opportunity to expand my limited knowledge of papyrus and its care. The meeting gave me the chance to become familiar with the work of my colleagues the world over and I hope to attend the next meeting in Leipzig, Germany 2020. A huge thanks goes out to the speakers and those who organised the event, including Jessica Baldwin, Kristine Rose-Beers, Bridget Leach, and Helen Sharp who chaired the sessions over the course of the meeting.

Jen Bowens, Paper Conservation Student at Northumbria University.

The Mystery of Mani runs from 21 June 2019- 19 January 2020.

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Chester Beatty
Dublin Castle
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