by Kathleen Scalise
Ancient papyrus documents that survived thousands of years encasing mummified crocodiles are being restored at Berkeley with technology adapted from silicon chip manufacturing.
Berkeley holds the second largest papyrus collection in the United States, dating from the third century B.C. and including royal proclamations, land transactions and literature. Much of the collection was discovered in papier-mích» casings around dead crocodiles ritually buried in the sands of Egypt thousands of years ago.
The manuscripts were apparently used to help the crocodile hides maintain a natural shape during mummification. An 1899 Berkeley expedition financed by Phoebe A. Hearst uncovered the crocodiles and the precious papyri.
Today, the recovered documents remain so fragile that much has never been viewed, said Anthony S. Bliss, curator of the Bancroft Library papyrus collection.
Of those that have been studied, many require restoration to survive, but the papyri can tear during remounting because of electric charge buildup, better known as static cling.
However, thanks to the cleverness of Berkeley's engineering school, a machine developed by Ion Systems for fabricating electronic micro- devices can now zap the charge.
Originally, the reptile discovery disappointed the Hearst archaeologists, who went looking for papyrus and found crocodiles. "The Hearst expedition found huge crocodile cemeteries. Acres. Hundreds and hundreds of mummified crocodiles," said Bliss. Crocodiles were held sacred where the Egyptian crocodile god, Sobek, was revered.
"The story is told that one day, a workman was digging hoping to unearth human mummies and unearthed yet another worthless crocodile. He pulled it out of the sand and chucked it, just heaved it out of the way. It broke open and then it was discovered that the crocodile was stuffed with papyri. Needless to say, this led to a whole new attitude about the crocodile mummies."
Papyrus was the ancient world's premiere writing material, prepared from the stems of a now extinct plant that grew in Nile marshes. Papyrus manuscripts were first discovered in Herculaneum in the 1750s, but were in poor condition, said Bliss. The Hearst expedition was dispatched after papyri were uncovered in Egypt. Delighted with their find, the Hearst crew rescued the papyri and dumped the crocodiles, except for three kept by the Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
"There was a very small market for crocodile mummies," Bliss said. "It's a standing joke I have with (the Hearst Museum) that we want to break into their crocodiles and see what's stashed inside. They say absolutely not!"
Besides the papyri retrieved from the crocodiles, the Hearst expedition also recovered documents wrapped around human mummies and buried in city vaults.
Most are legal and economic documents. Also included in the collection are fragments of a lost play by Greek dramatist Sophocles, quite a bit of Homer, some Virgil, Euripides, and other early literary texts, as well as some painted fragments. The documents are mainly written in Greek, with some Latin and Egyptian demotic, a type of cursive hieroglyphic writing.
One of the larger pieces, an early fragment of Virgil written in an unsteady hand with a reed quill, is a schoolboy exercise. The kid "had to keep writing it over and over and over again," said Bliss.
However, the content of much of the material is unknown, remaining in original packing boxes for almost 100 years. "I'm scared to death of this stuff," Bliss said. "Mind you, what we're talking about is fragments. These things were in the sands better than 2,000 years."
In Bliss's papyrus vault, boxes filled with brittle bits of papyrus line shelves. Wads of papyrus sit in antique Egyptian cigar tins. Only about 5 percent of the collection was mounted, and even this has proven more a curse than a blessing.
"The normal procedure would have been to use glass, but they had just discovered plastic," said Bliss. "Well, now it's 60 years later and we know what's wrong with plastic: it scratches, it flexes and it attracts static electricity."
The Bancroft Library has begun to restore and digitize the collection with partial funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Bancroft is seeking further donations to finish the rescue.