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Fundacja im. Kazimierza Michałowskiego


Late Roman, Byzantine and Medieval

The Sheikh Abd El-Gurna Papyrus Book Conservation Project (Egypt)

The two papyrus books and the set of parchment cards between wooden covers discovered by Tomasz Górecki in the Coptic hermitage in Sheikh Abd el-Gurna in 2005 necessitated immediate treatment. Expert conservators were rushed in then from Poland to take whatever protective measures and storage precautions were necessary in order to keep the finds in stable condition until a regular conservation project could be mounted.

The books upon discovery in 2005 in the rubbish dump of the hermitage at Sheikh Abd el-Gurna

In March 2006, book conservators Daria Kordowska and Anna Thommee-Stachoń were installed in the very professional labs of the National Museum in Alexandria, where the finds had been transferred for conservation. Their first job was to disinfect the papyrus books. As far as the parchment cards were concerned, there was no need for such action as they were not threatened by microorganisms and could be separated and cleaned, and then consolidated and stretched, which permitted a first cursory look at their content.

The parchment codex from Sheikh Abd el-Gurna: block separated from the wooden covers
The parchment codex from Sheikh Abd el-Gurna: separating particular cards
The parchment codex from Sheikh Abd el-Gurna: stretching as the first step of the conservation treatment in 2006

Two groups were identified: a larger set of about 25 cards with quotations from the Old Testament Prophecy of Isaiah, and a smaller one, 3 to 5 cards, which proved to be from an apocryphal text, the so-called Martyrium Petri, telling of the miraculous healing carried out by this Apostle. Both texts feature numerous floral ornaments on the margins. They have been dated provisionally to the 9th-10th century.

The restorers returned for another season of conservation in mid August and worked until late September. Now salvage conservation was effected on the two papyrus books. Exposure to temperature and humidity fluctuation and inevitable contact with polluted air (chlorides, sulphates, ozone, photochemical smog) had been deleterious for the condition of the books and it was noted with satisfaction that after a few months in the stable conditions of the Alexandria lab (60% Rh, 18-20°C), the deterioration processes had been halted. Even so, the books are in poor condition, the expert term for describing them being "deformed monoliths".

"Deformed monolith" - one of the papyrus codices from Sheikh Abd el-Gurna during conservation treatment in 2006

The first task was to separate the book covers from the blocks and to separate particular quires and pages mechanically. Wherever the fold of a quire was intact, indirect hydrating was necessary in order to permit separation without damage to the back. This way some of the leaves were separated as folia. The leaves were placed between acid-free cardboard sheets and stored in a custom-made wooden box, following the page sequence of the original book. The leather covers were protected with Japanese tissue paper and stored in specially designed passé-partout boxes for future conservation.

Conservators separating the pages of one of the papyrus codices from Sheikh Abd el-Gurna. Alexandria National Museum laboratory, 2006

Standard documentation was made all through the process, not the least being careful photography of all the separated leaves, which can now be used for study, regardless of the steps that will be taken in the next stage of the project. The conservation of the covers especially needs to be completed, but the important decision at this point - and one which demands further significant funding from sources other than the Polish Centre - is the form in which the objects will be stored and presented in the future. It is advisable to consider full repair of the papyrus leaves and reconstruction of the binding threads to restore the books to their original form. A copy or reprint of the objects could also be made, leaving the conserved pieces as is in Museum storage. Another possibility is to seal the separated sheets between glass or Plexiglas panes, but in that case the integrity of the books will have been lost.

D. Kordowska: dariako@op.pl
A. Thommée-Stachoń: a.thommee@yahoo.pl