The Ramesseum Papyri

R. B. Parkinson

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The archaeological context

Plate 1 The fifth magazine of the Ramesseum in 2006. Photograph: R.B. Parkinson.

In 1895–6, Flinders Petrie discovered a shaft-tomb as he and James Quibell excavated the funerary temple of Ramses II, the ‘Ramesseum’ (Quibell 1898: 3–4, pl. 1–3. See Drower 1995: 218–21). In the north-west corner of the temple complex, there was a ‘long oblong shaft, skew to the wall of one of the chambers [of the later temple’s brick magazines] and running under it’ (Quibell 1898: 3). This is the fifth magazine and the tomb is sometimes misleadingly referred to as ‘Tomb No. 5’ because of this. The published plans are not fully accurate and the shaft’s location is now uncertain, despite an attempt to relocate the shaft in 2005; the area is riddled with other shafts from the Second Intermediate Period, which occasionally run into each other (Leblanc 2005: 33–4; Nelson 2006, esp. 115–16; Plate 1). ‘At the bottom of the shaft, 13 feet [3.9m] down, two small chambers opened’ (Quibell 1898: 3), each of which probably had contained a single burial (J. Bourriau, pers. comm. 2003). ‘They were cleared and found to be empty. Lastly, the heap left in the middle of the shaft was removed and in it, in a space of about 2 feet [0.6m] square’, the excavators discovered a group of objects, apparently the remains of burial goods that had been removed from one of the burial chambers (Quibell 1898: 3). There was a wooden box, surrounded by a mass of other material.

The box

The white plastered box measured 18 x 12 x 12ins [45.75 x 30.5 x 30.5cm]. It was ‘covered with white plaster, and on the lid was roughly drawn in black ink the figure of a jackal’ (Quibell 1898: 3). The jackal might relate to the title ‘Master of Secrets’, which could be written with the sign of a jackal (and which could have been held by the owner), or the sign might refer to the chest as containing the written ‘secrets’ of his art. [1] However, the ‘roughly drawn’ (Quibell 1898: 3) jackal was probably simply added as a funerary motif when the chest was moved into the tomb. Unfortunately, no copy of this was published, and both lid and box are now un-located. Petrie gave other finds from the tomb to individuals who had funded his excavation, principally the northern textile manufacturer Jesse Haworth (1835–1920) who donated them to the Manchester Museum in 1896, and Frederick Green (1869–1949), the honorary curator at the Fitzwilliam Museum; some material was also given to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1901–2. The box may have been transferred into the care of the conservator Hugo Ibscher with the papyri still in it, and it seems not to be in the collections of Berlin, Cambridge, Manchester, London (the British Museum and University College London) or Oxford. The box was apparently a standard storage box; several have survived from el-Lahun which are very similar in colour and dimensions and which were found buried with offerings inside, beside the pyramid complex (Petrie et al. 1923: 12, pls 13–14): Manchester Museum 6198; British Museum EA 53942b.

When discovered, the box was ‘about one third full of papyri which were in extremely bad condition, three quarters of their substance having decayed away’ (Quibell 1898: 3). Since the shaft was within 200m of the modern edge of the cultivation, the papyri had probably been exposed to damp from ground water during the inundation season, making them very fragile and giving them a dark colour (Leach 2006: 227). From Quibell’s remarks it seems that the box would originally have been fairly full, and that the contents had not been disturbed except by decay. He did not mention how the papyri were arranged, but the usual manner of placement in a box was apparently lengthways, as in one funerary model of a scribal box (British Museum EA 35878: Parkinson 1999: 143).

In the box with the papyri there was also a large bundle of some 118 reeds, mostly 39–41cm long, apparently un-used but intended for pens (Manchester Museum 1882).


  • ^ [1] - Ritner 1993: 231–2; Morenz 1996: 145–6, 176.