Repairing the Book of the Dead

Repairing papyrus can be a little like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. In order to make sense of the many small pieces at hand, we take advantage of the various examination techniques we have here in the lab.

Detail of Book of the Dead of Sobekmose

Detail of Book of the Dead of Sobekmose, #37.1777E, transmitted light.

One method of examination we use is the use of transmitted light, which is light which passes through a transparent material from one side to the other.  Transmitted light is very useful in understanding how a sheet of papyrus is made and therefore, how it fits back together.

Use of the microscope is another instrument which makes our work easier.  Under magnification, and in combination with transmitted light, we can see clearly what we are doing and this makes our repairs and placing of loose fragments more precise.  It’s important to make as few and as small repairs as possible in order to stabilize the piece so that as much as possible of the original papyrus is visible.

Some of the clues we look for when reattaching fragments include looking at the contour of the fragment.  It’s shape is more easily visible with transmitted light, and we can see where the edges of the fragment may fit in place.  In transmitted light one can also easily see the vertical and horizontal lines of the papyrus plant’s fiber bundles (these bring water and nutrients up to the top of stalk) which create a characteristic crisscross pattern when viewing the sheet. The orientation of these lines on a fragment tell us in which orientation the fragment should be placed—horizontal or vertical, since all fibers on one side of a roll will be in the same direction.

Most importantly with magnification and transmitted light we can use these lines to place fragments.  At every join, there is a “fingerprint” pattern of lines which tells us if the fragment fits there and if so, exactly where.  If all the fibers on that particular fragment do not line up perfectly, it does not fit.

To join fragments, or make repairs, we use a kozo-fibered Japanese paper which we tint with acrylics or watercolors to the color the papyrus so that the repairs are visible but blend in.

Toned Japanese paper mend

Toned Japanese paper mend

Wheat starch paste is used to adhere the mends to the papyrus.  The paper is cut into small rectangles with a scissors.  (Normally the Japanese paper is torn so that the strength of its fibers are utilized; here we do not want the Japanese paper fibers to pull on the papyrus fibers if we need to remove the mend.)  Wheat starch paste is used because it does not change the papyrus and is reversible over time.

Pasting up a piece of Japanese paper

Pasting up a piece of Japanese paper with wheat starch paste and a small brush.

After we place the mend on the papyrus, we place a blotter on top of it to dry it out and a small weight to keep it flat while drying.

See brass weight over white blotter.

See brass weight over white blotter.

As a comparison, these two photographs show how a fragment will fit in place, viewed in normal light.

Sometimes we see mends to the papyrus that were made in ancient times.  We’ll talk more about those cases in the next blog.

This post is part of a series by Conservators and Curators on papyrus and in particular theBook of the Dead of the Goldworker of Amun, Sebekmose, a 24 foot long papyrus in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection. This unique papyrus currently in 8 large sections has never been exhibited due to condition. Thanks to a generous grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, the entire papyrus is now undergoing conservation treatment. The conservation work is expected to last until fall 2011 when all 8 sections will be exhibited together for the first time in the Mummy Chamber. As each section is conserved, it will join those already on exhibition until eventually the public will see the Book of the Dead in its entirety.