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UC Berkeley Press Release

unpackying papyri at the Bancroft Library Tony Bliss (right), curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Bancroft Library, and Tim Pepper, a UC Berkeley graduate student in classics, examine the Hearst Expedition papyri excavated by George Reisner, shortly after their arrival at the library. (Steve McConnell photo)

Egyptian papyri arrive on campus

– Ancient papyri from an Egyptian excavation conducted for the University of California, Berkeley, more than a century ago have arrived on campus after a circuitous journey worthy of a mystery novel, campus officials announced at a news conference today (Wednesday, Nov. 1).

Following their discovery in Egypt, the papyri were sent to a German conservator, hidden in Berlin during World War II, concealed from East Germans intent on seizing them, smuggled to West Berlin and stashed in a shop, and stored in Switzerland. One roll was shipped to Boston in the 1930s, but the others remained hidden until the 1960s, when they, too, were shipped to Boston. They remained there until just a few weeks ago.

Four large rolls of the papyri found resting atop an Egyptian coffin during archaeologist George A. Reisner's 1901-1904 dig at Naga ed-Deir near the Upper Nile Valley arrived recently at UC Berkeley's Center for the Tebtunis Papyri in The Bancroft Library.

Scholars are marveling about the items - some more than 4,000 years old and about 1,000 years older than anything else at the center. The papyri are among the most significant administrative documents of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, containing a wealth of information about religion and the "nuts and bolts of how ancient Egypt worked" in the era that began around 1900 B.C., said Cathleen Keller, a UC Berkeley associate professor of Egyptology.

"The Reisner papyri are interesting because they contain documentary records of wages, contracts, projects," said center director Donald Mastronarde, the Melpomene Professor of Classics at UC Berkeley who has meticulously researched the saga of the Reisner papyri. "There's not much like that available from that time - these papyri are much more important than first thought."

Reisner expedition in Egypt
During an expedition to Giza, Egypt, archaeologist George Reisner (left, on horse) posed for a photo with benefactress Phoebe A. Hearst (center, in feathered hat) and other members of the party. (Photo courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology)

UC Berkeley is one of only a handful of universities in the United States with papyrus collections.

Reisner collected the papyri and other materials in Egypt under the auspices of the University of California Expedition, which was supported by philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Together with Hearst, he amassed between 1899 and 1905 a collection of more than 17,000 catalogued Egyptian objects that ranks among the largest in North America.

Papyrus, made from stems of a plant found in Nile marshes, once served as the world's premiere writing material. The Tebtunis Center includes more than 30,000 pieces of papyri that contain portions of Greek literature such as Homer's "Iliad" and a lost play by Sophocles, as well as Egyptian census records, medical prescriptions for relieving hippopotamus or pig bites, and the records of a prophetess of a crocodile god.

The Reisner documents, some from a royal dockyard workshop that detail the organization of manpower in ancient Egypt, are still intriguing today as engineers puzzle over construction of the pyramids. The materials Reisner collected at Naga ed-Deir also contain short "letters to the dead," in which troubled Egyptians appeal to deceased relatives to plead on their behalf with higher-ranking deceased, said Keller. The letters help open "a very fascinating window into how everyday religion worked," she said.

George Reisner
George A. Reisner. (Photo courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology)

Over the course of his long career, Reisner amassed huge collections and spent most of his time in the field, unable to complete his study of and publication about his excavations, Keller said. Some of his disorganized documentation, she said, contributed to the long time it has taken to get the Reisner papyri to UC Berkeley, even though efforts to get Reisner's finds to campus began almost immediately upon word of their discovery.

About that time, Mastronarde said, Reisner mentioned the rolls in a letter to Hearst, and again in 1903 in a preliminary report on the dig.

A year later, Hearst's funding for the UC Berkeley Egyptian excavations ended, and Reisner picked up similar work in Egypt with a consortium that included Harvard University and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

In 1924, a UC Berkeley faculty committee complained to administrators that the Reisner materials were missing, Mastronarde said. Meanwhile, he said, Reisner approached noted German conservator Hugo Ibscher in the '20s to see if he could help preserve the ancient texts. Ibscher dispatched the first conserved roll to Reisner at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1938.

The director of the Museum of Fine Arts indicated that he would be visiting California in 1940 and would take up the Reisner papyri issue with UC Berkeley officials, Mastronarde said, but there is no record of that happening.

In 1961, the late Klaus Baer of UC Berkeley's Near Eastern Studies Department began asking about the papyri and received misleading information from Boston about their whereabouts, Mastronarde said, adding that other requests for information were either ignored or refused.

Reisner died in 1942, but another scholar, William Kelly Simpson of Yale University, took up researching the papyri and had the remaining rolls shipped from Switzerland to Boston. Publications on the ancient texts came out between 1963 and 1986.

When the Center for Tebtunis Papyri was established in 2001, its scholars turned back to the Reisner papyri and submitted their first inquiries to the Museum of Fine Arts in 2003. Then, when Mastronarde was a visiting professor at Harvard last spring, he went to the museum and copied records proving the UC Berkeley/Reisner papyri and related artifacts were there.

With help from Lawrence Berman, Boston museum's Norma Jean Calderwood Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art, negotiations for the materials to be sent to UC Berkeley were expedited, Mastronarde said. With UC Berkeley's center compensating Boston for conservation work and shipment of the papyri from Europe, the Museum of Fine Arts agreed to return all the known Hearst Expedition papyri it had to UC Berkeley.

"The MFA is delighted to have been able to resolve this matter so amicably after 70 years and to return the papyri to their rightful home, where they will be studied and used in a special institute for papyri," said Berman.

"Among American collections, the Egyptian manuscripts are unsurpassed in quality, quantity, and chronological range," said Todd Hickey, curator of the Tebtunis Center. "With the recovery that we are marking today, and with return of 2,000 Tebtunis papyri from Oxford last October, faculty and students at UC Berkeley and beyond are much closer to enjoying the full measure of Mrs. Hearst's remarkable generosity."

More information about the center is at: http://tebtunis.berkeley.edu/.

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