Conserving the Duke papyri

by Peter van Minnen
In accordance with the goals of the project, the papyrologist hired for the purpose has tried to gain "physical control" over the Duke papyrus collection. The papyrus collection at Duke mainly consists of fragile and often fragmentary documents from Graeco-Roman Egypt, dating from the third century B.C. to the seventh century A.D. Pieces as old as the twelfth century B.C. or as "recent" as the tenth century A.D. are also represented.

The papyrologist has sorted out the fragments of each acquisition of papyri according to their script and made joins between fragments where appropriate. He has collected data on various physical aspects of the papyri, such as size, margins, state of preservation, etc. The latter information is available in a FilemakerPro database. Some papyri needed to be cleaned or flattened and many fragmentary papyri had to be physically joined before the papyrologist could put them in a frame of two panes of glass. As a rule the guidelines in M. Fackelmann, Restaurierung von Papyrus und anderen Schriftträgern aus Ägypten (Zutphen 1985) have been followed. For conservation purposes the papyrologist has used two different solutions of Klucel (hydroxypropyl celluloid) and two different types of acid-free paper tape. The two solutions of Klucel are for wetting and for gluing respectively. The acid-free tapes are for joining adjacent fragments and for binding the glass frames. Air holes in the paper tape that binds the frames help prevent the build-up of residue left on the glass by micro-organisms in the papyrus. The glass is of an ordinary type and about 2mm thick. Occasionally frames consist of somewhat thinner or thicker glass and are bound in plastic tape; this was done in the past by now emeritus professor W.H. Willis. For the smallest fragments slide glass has been used, which is only 1mm thick and of the highest quality as far as transparency is concerned.

At present the papyrologist has gained "physical control" over all 1,373 papyri. This leaves about 200 papyri, which will be dealt with in the remaining eight months of the project. Some of these papyri were in fairly damaged condition and needed a lot of conservation work. The pieces recovered from mummy cartonnage were still partially covered with paint and all pieces had to be flattened before they could be read and framed. (The ancient Egyptians recycled their old paper in such cartonnage, with which they covered the mummified bodies of the dead.)

The papyri are stored in flat acid-free boxes in three layers. These boxes will eventually be stored in a climate-controlled area in Perkins Library, where temperature and humidity are kept at a constant temperature.

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Last updated by Peter van Minnen on 12/12/95