Conserving a papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Muthepti
In the nineteenth century, papyri found in Egypt had paper or linen backings attached to them so that they were strong enough to be handled and examined. Many, like the fifth page of the Book of the Dead of Muthepti shown here, were also covered in varnish to try and make the pictures and writing stand out.
Over the years the backing on this papyri had become dirty and crinkled and the varnish dark, which made the colours and writing appear less vivid. So, Museum conservators removed the backing and the varnish. To do this a temporary lining, or ‘facing’, was put on the front to protect the fragile papyrus during treatment. A special tissue is laid, in strips, on the surface with an acrylic resin. These strips make it easier to put on and take off later.
The paper backing was then removed very slowly and carefully by a conservator using tweezers. Old backings are dampened for a few hours before being taken off so that they peel away more easily. The facing protects the papyrus, and its writing and illustrations, during this wet process.
When the backing has been removed the back of the papyrus itself was repaired using small paper strips. Repairs are placed along any cracks and weak areas so that when the facing is taken off they will hold the papyrus together.
The adhesive used to attach the facing to the papyrus was dissolved by the solvent acetone, which also dissolves varnish. This enabled the facing and varnish to be removed in one process, improving the appearance of the papyrus considerably.
When the backing was removed, conservators discovered a hieroglyphic sign that had previously been covered up. It is the sign for ‘top’, and although we do not know exactly why it was written there, the reason could simply be that it is a ‘This way up’ sign, used by the ancient Egyptians to show which end was which when the papyrus was rolled up.