The Ramesseum Papyri

R. B. Parkinson

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The modern history of the papyri

Petrie approached Francis Llewellyn Griffith to assist with the study of the papyri (Quibell 1898: 3); Griffith wisely refrained from attempting to read the papyri by scraping away the folds of each roll, and so ‘the … boxful of rolls and fragments lay for some years neglected on a shelf of the Edwards Library at University College, London’ (Gardiner 1955a: 2). Around 1900 Percy Newberry attempted to unroll and mount two of the most impressive rolls (P. Ramesseum 3 and then 1), mounting them in whatever order was possible on glass smeared by beeswax; Gardiner later commented ‘the loss in these two cases is irreparable, since undoubtedly many fragments were lost or destroyed in the process’ (1955a: 2), especially with the lower portions of P. Ramesseum 1 where no attempt was made to fix the small fragments to glass until later. And no attempt was subsequently made to remount them in their correct order as they were impossible to unglass given the way in which the fragments had been attached to the glass. Barns’ later publication drew on ‘very poor photographs of the large pieces, taken many years before they were mounted, which shows them in a more complete state than they are in at present, some pieces having in the mean time partly disintegrated’ (1956: xiv). The results of this history is visible in this catalogue: in several cases I have not been able to identify in the current frames some fragments as they were transcribed and published by Barns in 1956, and this discrepancy is probably due to these losses.[1]

Petrie saw a future editor in the young Alan Gardiner, who argued that they should be unrolled and conserved by his acquaintance in Berlin, Hugo Ibscher; Petrie, ‘realizing that the cost of conservation and publication would be considerable, … suggested that if [Gardiner] acquitted [him]self of both obligations, [he] could regard the papyri as [his] own and dispose of them as [he] thought best’ (Gardiner 1955a: 2). ‘Between the two wars some differences of opinion had arisen as to the ultimate disposal of the find, but in the end it was agreed that the entire series should be presented to the British Museum as the joint gift of Petrie’s British School of Archaeology in Egypt and [Gardiner]. The arrangement was, however, subject to the condition of previous publication’ as agreed in the early 1900s (1955a: 4).

The papyri survive largely through Gardiner’s generosity and determination. In 1903 while Gardiner was in Berlin he took three rolls with him so that Hugo Ibscher, the Berlin Museum’s restorer of papyri, could work on them (P. Ramesseum 4, 5 and 9). Over the following years all of the papyri were treated by Ibscher in both Berlin and London. Initially Ibscher laid the fragments onto card or gelatine without adhesive before placing them between two glass sheets. Two frames (P. Ramesseum 18) were mounted on celluloid film, which spontaneously decomposed some time before 1955 (Leach 2006: 227), probably as an experiment: later Ibscher used gelatine film as a mount. The chronology is not fully documented, but it is known that P. Ramesseum 2 and 8 were mounted in 1905 and C in 1906. Ibscher conserved the roll with the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant and of Sinuhe in Berlin in 1906–7, although some — or many — fragments were lost in the process (Gardiner 1907). The manuscript has ‘Berlin 1906/7’ inscribed on the gelatine mount (Leach 2006: 236). Gardiner significantly numbered the roll as P. Ramesseum A, giving primacy to this most obviously literary manuscript of the archive. He gave P. Ramesseum A to the Berlin Museum as a ‘means of eliciting the funds’ for a publication of both the 12th- and 13th-Dynasty literary papyri of these poems (Gardiner 1955a: 3; 1962: 14–15), and the manuscripts of Sinuhe and The Eloquent Peasant were duly published by Friedrich Vogelsang and Gardiner in 1908–9, as the first of two volumes in the series Hieratische Papyrus aus den Königlichen Museen zu Berlin (Gardiner and Vogelsang 1908; Gardiner 1909), but as work proceeded some more fragments were identified which remained not fully published. As Bridget Leach has commented ‘with any large find of papyrus, the larger, more intact pieces are usually tackled first and work continues until only the smaller, less promising fragments are left. In the later stages the  “law of diminishing returns” sets in and the pace of the work is likely to become slower and slower’ (2006: 229). Ibscher unrolled P. Ramesseum D in London in 1907 and in 1910 Gardiner sold it, with Petrie’s agreement, to the Berlin Museum to recoup some of the funds he had spent on the conservation (Gardiner 1947: I, 7) since ‘by this time the unrolling of the papyri had begun to cost more than [he] could well personally afford’ (Gardiner 1955a: 3). Ibscher probably worked on P. Ramesseum B on another visit to London in 1929; this papyrus was published by Kurt Sethe in 1928 (1928: pls 1–22), and so could be donated to the British Museum in 1929. There are some discrepancies between Sethe’s facsimile drawings and the papyrus as mounted, and it seems likely that some fragments were drawn but lost during the conservation and mounting process.

  • ^ [1] - Annotations to a photograph of P. Ramesseum E by Gunn in 1944 allude to the loss of some fragments (cited in catalogue entry). For a full account of the conservation history and the current state of each papyrus see Leach 2006.

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