Ensconced within the Conservation and Exhibit Services Laboratory at Sterling Memorial Library, a two-person team pieces together fragments of the ancient past.
These artifacts are part of Yale’s papyrus collection, which is currently undergoing extensive conservation and digitalization. After Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s previous papyrologist — who oversaw the University’s papyrus collection — left in 1997, the post remained vacant until about two years ago. While all papyri are in a stable condition at the Beinecke, some require additional conservation treatment. In light of the library’s renovation — beginning May 2015 — current papyrologist Tasha Dobbin-Bennett and Assistant Chief Conservator Paula Zyats have been tasked with conserving items in the collection. All of Yale’s papyri are to be digitized by the time of the renovation.
“There are folders full of scary-looking piles of crumbly papyrus,” said Ellen Doon, the Beinecke’s manuscript unit head. “With the renovation coming up I really wanted to get some control over these things before we move them around.”
Dobbin-Bennett said the papyrus collection, which spans 13 different languages and over a thousand years of history, contains about 7,000 items. Though the collection is broad, she added that it depicts elements of everyday life, such as correspondence between husbands and wives.
Established in 1889 with the donation of three papyri from textile supplier Jesse Haworth, Yale’s papyrus collection is one of the oldest in the country. Doon said the last acquisition in the collection was in the mid-1990s.
Doon said previous papyrologists worked on conserving the sprawling collection, but the most recent acquisition was largely untouched due to lack of appropriate staff.
However, Dobbin-Bennett said all papyri have been in a stable condition and have been particularly well treated because of the Beinecke’s temperature and humidity control system — which surpasses the standards at other universities.
“At the Beinecke, the [papyrus] collection is treated like art,” she added.
Prioritizing the order in which papyri are conserved is reflective of readability, scholarly interests and unique or unusual text, Doon said. She added that the work conducted on the papyri is not too costly in terms of the materials used. The main expense is time, she said.
Dobbin-Bennett said she works on stabilizing the papyri, realigning the fibers so that the text is legible and the piece is structurally sound. She said she uses a reversible adhesive in a conservative manner, employing small amounts of new material and moisture to join the fragments.
“The field of papyrology changes with technology,” Chief Conservator Christine McCarthy said. “It’s not static — we’re adapting and changing.”
Improvements in technology have also allowed the collection to be more accessible. While McCarthy said the papyri collection was one of the first available for online viewing, many of the images were taken in the late 1980s and 1990s — and some papyri have never been imaged.
All papyri are to be associated with high-resolution images before the Beinecke’s renovation, making the collection completely accessible, Dobbin-Bennett said.
McCarthy said prior to digitalization, scholars had to come to the Beinecke to see the materials. Now, researchers will be able to view the material remotely and begin their research — regardless of where they are in the world.
Zyats said the protocol for conservation is fairly standard, but she spoke with representatives from libraries around the world to learn more about treatments tailored to specific types of papyri.
“Conservation is a continuum of options,” McCarthy said.
She added that these options are dependent upon the types of papyri in the collection. Zyats, for instance, has worked at Yale with cartonnages, which are layers of plastered papyri — often recycled fragments of text — used in the construction of mummies’ masks and body coverings.
Other sorts of papyri, from more conventional sources, were folded and twisted when discovered, Dobbin-Bennett said. She added that excavators would often hold the fragments together with packing tape to ensure pieces were not lost — though pieces often were not in proper alignment.
The earliest papyri uncovered thus far date to 2560–2550 B.C. and were found on the coast of the Red Sea.