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  • Papyrus, Substantial parts of the Book of the Dead of Ramose

The Book of the Dead of Ramose came to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1922 in thousands of jumbled-up fragments. It had been discovered in the tomb of Ramose at Sedment, a site in Middle Egypt, by the famous archaeologist, William Matthew Flinders Petrie. He describes how it was found 'roughly unrolled, and left lying in a heap covered with rubbish, in the tomb doorway'. 

He goes on to say: 

It was brought away so far as possible, and the hundreds of fragments need restoration. The work of it is the most delicate that I have seen, in the drawing and colouring of the birds and animals; the face of Osiris and ornaments of the gods are gilded, and this is also very unusual. 

Some piecing together of the papyrus was done soon after it arrived at the museum in 1922, and in the 1960s two sections were put between sheets of Perspex and put on display in the galleries. But the rest has continued to lie in pieces in sixty paper folders in the museum's basement. 

The papyrus itself is in fairly good condition, although it is very dirty and there is some evidence of salt deposits, and the many paintedCleaning the Book of the Dead of Ramose scenes have survived relatively well. The main problem is the mass of fragments lying unsecured in a pile of folders, which means they are extremely vulnerable. There are some old repairs too, using a variety of labels and tapes, which are not only unsightly, but are actually damaging the papyrus. Some of the old reconstructions are also incorrect. 

The conservation of this papyrus will be time-consuming and costly. Fortunately, we have been able to engage Renée Waltham, who is a specialist papyrus conservator to work on it for us, and we are lucky to be supported financially by generous grants from the Getty Foundation, Heritage Lottery Fund, Newton Trust and Aurelius Trust. 

Initially, the conservation treatment concentrates on the smaller fragments of the papyurs assemblage, testing and observing the reaction to treatment of the papyrus and the huge variety of painted elements. 

The condition of each piece is recorded. At this stage treatment consists of cleaning (both dry and swabbing with deionised water) to remove loose debris and more ingrained dirt. 

Humidifying fragments of papyrusThis is followed by humidification on 'Gore-Tex' to relax the papyrus prior to flattening and realignment. It also makes it easier to remove the old repairs, in many cases dissolving the adhesive enough to be able to remove the paper strips. 

Finally Renée has to rejoin the pieces. Just like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, she looks for oins in both the text and the images. Looking at the papyrus structure on a light box can also help as she can then follow the natural fibre patterns in the material. Renée and our Egyptologists can do a certain amount of joining, but we also need advice from a papyrologist who specialises in Books of the Dead. Later in the year, an expert from the University of Bonn in Germany will come to help us. 

Detail of a bird from the Book of the Dead of RamoseAt the same time, we are also examining the way the papyrus was made: the materials and the process of manufacture. So we have to choose areas of the papyrus which we can use for examining more closely the painting technique used, as well as identifying the pigments and media by means of non-destructive techniques, using small samples.