Rehousing the Greek Papyri

Guest blog by Niki Pantazidou.

As a book and paper conservator I had the great opportunity to work at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library since March 2016. The Library has an important collection of more than 3000 papyri covering different periods, languages and origins. Papyrus, which was made from the plant Cyperous Papyrus, was first used as a writing material around 3000 BC in Egypt. The plant used to grow on the banks of the River Nile. Most inks used for writing on papyrus were black (carbon ink) and red (iron oxide-usually from natural minerals) (Danzing, 2010).

Black ink on papyrus, viewed through a microscope.

The Greek Papyrus collection in John Rylands Library provides important insights into early Christianity and important documents referring to medicine, taxation, etc. It also includes some fragments written on parchment – animal skin.

Unnumbered parchment fragment, with drawing of Christian figure.

In August 2016, with funding from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, the methodical papyri rehousing project was able to commence. The aim was a storage method which allows researchers to handle them safely and more easily. The idea behind the rehousing project came from our conservator, Tim Higson. Many fragments were very fragile, and at risk from a range of issues, including adhesive tapes, creases, folds, dust and dirt deposits.

Fragment showing tears and creases.
Fragment showing dirt and dust deposits.

The majority of the fragments were kept in polyester “wallets”, which are unsuitable because of the risks caused by static. Some of the fragments need to be stabilized with “bridges” which are Japanese tissue coated with SCMC. This type of glue is activated with deionized water.We decided to remove fragments from polyester wallets, and place them in archival folders.

Taking the papyrus out of the polyester wallet.
Stabilizing a fragment using “bridges”

During the process of the project, we had to leave some of the papyri fragments in their polyester “wallets” due to their fragile condition.

Fragment to fragile to remove from polyester wallet.

“The regimen I adopt shall be for the respect and the benefit of my monuments according to my ability and judgement, and not for their hurt or for any wrong. I will give no deadly treatment to any, though it be asked of me, nor will I counsel such, and especially I will not aid to demolish whatever monument I enter. There I will go for its benefit and the benefit of society, refraining from all wrong doing and corruption, and especially from any act of seduction. And I will document and publish every step that I take.”
(Conservator’s vow, “The Venice Charter”, 1964).

Loose fragments that need a different storage solution!
Tim Higson’s solution for the storage of loose fragments and seals

Conservators work with archaeologists, curators, papyrologists, chemists and other professionals cooperate to unite the past with the future and bring to light valuable knowledge and information about customs, traditions, and history. I would like to thank the University of Manchester and the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust for giving me the opportunity to work on this unique collection of Greek Papyri, and to thank Tim Higson and Dr Roberta Mazza for their support and guidance. Finally, I wish to acknowledge the help and the warm support provided by all my colleagues. It was an exceptional working environment and I feel very grateful about that.

Danzing, R. (2010, September 22). Pigments and Inks Typically used on Papyrus. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from BKM TECH:

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