Find contexts

in situ finds

The optimal scenario for modern research is to find papyri in-situ – i.e. on the site itself – during excavation, because in this case the archaeological and historical context can be documented properly. Finding spots can be houses, temples or tombs. The most famous in-situ finding took place not in Egypt but in the Villa dei Papiri near Herculaneum at the foot of Vesuvius. The eruption of the volcano didn’t spare this villa belonging to a wealthy Roman family and the lava flow covered and carbonized the papyrus rolls, which have been thus preserved over the centuries.

Garbage dumps

The probably most consistent papyrus findings were made on dumps of ancient settlements. Here the inhabitants threw away texts, which they used no longer. The organic waste thickened over time and became a kind of humus, the sebakh, which the modern Egyptian sebakhim excavated in order to fertilize their fields. As a result of the growing interest of European and American scholars and collectors, the sebakhim started to sell their findings to them. Furthermore thousands of papyri were brought to light through excavations of ancient dumps by archaeologists and papyrologists like Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt.

Mummy cartonnage

Discarded papyri were often used as cheap stuffing for mummies, i.e. mummy cartonnage. Similar to modern papier mâché, single papyrus sheets were shredded or cut into pieces and then brought into the desired form by adding water. However, readability of single papyrus sheets or fragments can be restored by means of modern conservation techniques.