Books of the Dead brought back to life

The Conservation Department has begun a campaign to conserve and rehouse some of the visually impressive papyri known as the Book of the Dead (TCD MSS 1658-1676) from the extensive collection of papyri housed in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. This collection was donated in 1838 by Edward King, viscount of Kingsborough.
The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is a funerary text containing a canon of spells and instructions, often accompanied by pictorial representations or ‘vignettes’, placed within the tomb to assist the deceased’s soul on the journey into the afterlife.
The first item undertaken by Conservation is MS 1664 (fig. 1), which displays a vignette of the judgement of Osiris, one of the greatest challenges a soul must undertake in order to pass into the netherworld and achieve immortality.

Fig. 1. Overall view of MS 1664 on paper supprts and wooden strainer in reflected light.

Fig. 1. Overall view of MS 1664 on paper supprts and wooden strainer in reflected light.

MS 1664 is attributed to ‘Te-saf daughter of Tepar’, who is represented as a figure in fine clothes between the twin goddesses of Maat (fig. 2). Te -saf must profess her good character to the god, Osiris (seated left), and his assessors (seated in the frieze above the scene). After her successful protestation of innocence, her heart is weighed against a feather – the symbol of Maat, the divine principle of cosmic order – to confirm her testimony and worthiness; however, this part of the scene is missing. The ibis-headed god, Thoth, stands before Osiris ready to record the outcome of Te-saf’s judgement and, if she is successful, assist her in the rest of her journey.

Fig. 2. Detail of MS 1664 showing Te-saf between the twin goddesses of Maat who are identified by the feathers over their heads.

Fig. 2. Detail of MS 1664 showing Te-saf between the twin goddesses of Maat who are identified by the feathers over their heads.

The Ancient Egyptians wrote on papyrus, a precursor to paper. Papyrus sheets are made up of two layers of strips cut from the inner stem of the Cyperus papyrus plant. One layer is composed of vertically aligned strips and the second layer is composed of horizontally aligned strips. These strips are arranged in position after having been thoroughly soaked in water and then dried under pressure. Individual sheets are then pasted together and trimmed to form scrolls.
The accessibility of the Egyptian papyri collection has been limited over the past few years due to condition issues. In 1848, the papyri scrolls were adhered to two paper supports, and tensioned around rigid wooden panels within glazed wooden frames. Although the paper was of high quality, prolonged and direct contact with the wooden support has contributed to the acidic degradation of the paper and subsequently, the papyrus. Furthermore, over time, as the temperature and relative humidity change, the papyri fibres expand and shrink and the naturally occurring salt content migrates and crystalizes within the layers. The build-up of internal stresses within the papyrus eventually results in layers cracking and lifting

Fig.3 Detail of delaminating papyrus along the top edge of MS 1664 in raking light.

Fig.3 Detail of delaminating papyrus along the top edge of MS 1664 in raking light.

In the case of MS 1664, a surface coating was also applied at some point, most likely during the nineteenth-century mounting process, that has since yellowed and partially solvated resulting in tidelines. All of these factors contribute to rendering the papyrus too fragile to be safely handled.
The initial investigation of MS 1664 has involved documenting the structure of the papyrus as well as its frame and supports. High-quality photo-documentation has been completed with Digital Resources Imaging Services and a sample of the surface coating has also been analysed by Trinity’s Centre for Microscopy and Analysis. The coating is believed to be a natural resin with some other unknown additives. Such coatings were not uncommon for mounters in the nineteenth century and the ingredients were often kept secret and thus, rarely published.
All of this information will be collated to ensure the papyri fragments will be preserved in a chemically and physically stable state.
Stabilization of the delaminated papyrus is a major aspect of the conservation programme. This requires careful examination under the stereo microscope. Gentle humidification with a nanomister – a device that generates a very fine aqueous mist – is used to make lifting sections more flexible. Under magnification, a very small brush is used to administer a purified wheat starch paste, a similar adhesive to that used by the ancient Egyptians to join sheets in a scroll. The paste is left to sit for a few seconds to further humidify the papyrus fibres before they are gently pressed back down into place.
The paper supports have also been cleaned. The next step will be to remove the papyrus and its paper supports from their acidic wooden strainer and re-tension them over an archival honeycomb board. These new structures will be temporarily replaced into their old frames while they await a new storage environment.
Fig. 4. Samuel H. Kress Fellow, Lauren Buttle, MAC, consolidating delaminated papyrus on MS 1664.

Fig. 4. Samuel H. Kress Fellow, Lauren Buttle, MAC, consolidating delaminated papyrus on MS 1664.


In addition to being able to stabilise the papyri collection, the research associated with this project has revealed connections between the fragment discussed here and a fragment owned by the Bristol Museum in the UK. These have been confirmed as belonging to the same book by renowned Egyptologist, Dr. Irmtraut Munro. The Conservation Department will continue to investigate this and other possible connections as well as the possibility of virtually re-uniting these fragments.

This project is made possible with generous support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

Lauren Buttle MAC
Samuel H. Kress Fellow, Papyrus Conservation
Glucksman Conservation Department
The Library at Trinity College Dublin