We’re One Step Closer to Non-Invasively Reading Ancient Papyri Hidden in Mummy Masks

Researchers at the University College of London are working to find a way to read the ancient scraps without destroying the artifacts in the process

Courtesy of Eric Beadel Kathryn and Cerys

Before mummified bodies were laid to rest in ancient Egypt, they were often covered with masks that presented idealized versions of the deceased, symbolizing their elevation to a god-like status. But hidden within these artifacts are texts that testify to the more humdrum realities of Egyptian existence. Many mummy masks, along with casings that covered other parts of the dead, were made from “cartonnage,” a material consisting of recycled scraps of papyrus etched with receipts, decrees, tax records, marriage contracts and other snippets of daily life.

Researchers at the University College of London recently announced that they have made an important step forward in analyzing the papyri contained within mummy coverings. Crucially, and in contrast to previous efforts, they have done so without destroying the artifacts in the process.

Cartonnage was a foundational element of Egyptian funerary technology. The material could contain linen in addition to or in place of papyri, and was used as a flexible base that was molded over the bodies of the dead. The cartonnage was then plastered over and painted, sometimes with luxurious designs. But these casings were not purely decorative; they were an important precaution taken to preserve the body for the afterlife.

In the past, researchers have accessed papyri that was packed into cartonnage by pulling the layers of cartonnage apart and separating out the desired texts. Doing so completely destroys the mummy coverings, but the sacrifice has been deemed necessary because papyri contain rare and vital information that cannot be found in the idealized inscriptions of tombs and monuments—information “about the daily grind, the disputes, the concerns, the problems and issues that people were dealing with as part of lived experience,” says Kathryn Piquette, an Egyptologist and imaging specialist at the University College of London (UCL).

Scholars later devised a way to extract cartonnage from the surrounding plaster without ruining the painted exterior. But this method, according to Piquette, is “nevertheless very destructive,” since it still involves dismantling the cartonnage.

In search of a better way to access cartonnage papyri, Piquette and other members of the UCL team—which was led by professors Melissa Terras and Adam Gibson, and aided by PhD student Cerys Jones—tried to peer into cartonnage using non-invasive, advanced imaging techniques.

They tested three technologies on simulated cartonnage, which Piquette made by layering pieces of modern papyri that were inscribed with replicas of ancient ink. And the team found that each technology was useful in a different way when it came to penetrating through layers of paint, plaster and linen to get to the hidden texts. X-rays, for example, were successful at detecting inks containing metal, like red iron oxide, but weren’t so great at sussing out carbon-based inks. The opposite was true of a technique called terahertz radiation.

Researchers also tested a fragment of a real mummy mask using multispectral imaging, which can detect a range of different colors by illuminating objects with different wavelengths of light. In a different context, Piquette and Jones made an important discovery using this method. They analyzed an Egyptian coffin lid and were able to decipher faded hieroglyphs that likely spelled out the deceased’s name: Irethoreru, or “the eye of Horus is against them,” with “them” probably referring to enemies. But the success of multispectral imaging on cartonnage was more limited. The technique could detect both metal and carbon-based inks near the surface of the cartonnage, but could not penetrate far into the layers.

It’s important to note that with all three methods, researchers were only able to determine the presence of different inks within the dense cartonnage; they could not glean enough information to read the texts. Their study is just the first step in what will surely be a long trajectory of research—but it is a significant first step.

“You have to start somewhere, and it's really important to take a multi modal approach: to be trying a lot of different techniques alongside each other and comparing the different results,” says Piquette. “Before we start to try to get more out of a particular technology … we need to characterize its potential and its limitations. We don't want to be wasting our time trying to refine a particular technique when we realize, ‘Well, x-ray is no good for carbon ink.’”

Moving forward, the UCL team plans to test more pieces of real cartonnage, in the hopes of developing non-destructive technologies that will allow them to actually read intriguing ancient texts. And since cartonnage objects continue to be looted in Egypt and dissembled by eager collectors, there is a definite urgency to the team’s work.

“Cartonnage are very much at risk,” says Piquette. “As long as there is a market for buying [illicit] antiquities … and there is this interest in extracting texts relating to biblical sources, classical writers, literary texts, then the destruction of these precious objects will continue apace. If we can demonstrate a proof of concept, [we can] get the word out there that even if these things are obtained illicitly, you don't have to destroy them.”

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