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Introduction to Egyptian Papyri, circa 300–100 BC

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Egyptian Papyri, circa 300–100 BC
In early July 1835 in , Ohio, JS and other individuals purchased a collection of Egyptian artifacts from , known as a traveling agent for a group of men from . In December 1835, described these relics as consisting of four mummies, “two rolls of papyrus,” and “two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c.” He said the papyri were “beautifully written in papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation.” The images that follow show the extant fragments of these papyri. Versos of the various loose fragments and small scraps that bear no discernible characters are not included here but may be viewed at josephsmithpapers.org. The surviving papyrus fragments represent only a portion of the original collection.
According to Egyptologists, the papyri purchased by JS and his associates originated in Thebes, Egypt (the present-day city of Luxor), and date to sometime between the third century and the first century bc. The papyri were unearthed with other artifacts by agents of Bernardino Drovetti in the late 1810s and early 1820s and arrived in America in the early 1830s. The papyri come from two genres of funerary texts—Books of Breathing and Books of the Dead—which were sometimes buried with the deceased in Greco-Roman Egypt. Fragments that apparently came from one papyrus roll contain text from a version of the Book of Breathing that was created for an ancient Egyptian priest named Horos. Ancient Books of Breathing included information that was essential for the deceased to attain resurrection and eternal life. Some scholars who have studied the Book of Breathing for Horos estimate that the roll originally measured between 150 and 156 centimeters; the extant portion of the papyrus is roughly 66 centimeters long. Fragments from a second roll contain text from a version of the Book of the Dead that was made for a woman named Semminis. Scholars estimate that this roll was originally about 300 or about 700 centimeters; the surviving portion is roughly 92 centimeters long. The Book of the Dead, which began to take shape at least as early as the seventeenth or sixteenth century bc, contains instructions for the dead to prepare for resurrection and secure their place among the gods. One surviving fragment purchased by JS and his associates is a vignette, or illustration, from chapter 125 of a different Book of the Dead—a version made for Nefer-ir-nebu.
JS and his fellow purchasers in were not the first to acquire mummies or papyri from Drovetti’s collection. The artifacts acquired by Drovetti and his agents were dispersed throughout Europe and . Indeed, Drovetti and his agents likely unearthed a family vault belonging to Horos and sold its contents: at least ten different funerary papyri, all made for the multigenerational family of Horos, have been identified in collections around the world. It is likely that the copy of the Book of Breathing for Horos acquired by JS and his associates came from the same ancient burial site as these other papyri. It is unknown when or where Drovetti’s network acquired the other papyrus fragments bought by JS and others.
The precise condition of the papyri at the time of the 1835 purchase is unknown, though evidence suggests that they were deteriorating even before the purchase. While the papyri were in a state of “excellent preservation” when they arrived in , by March 1835, a newspaper stated that the ends of one roll “are somewhat decayed, but at the centre the leaves are in a state of perfect preservation.” The account, written just a few months before JS and his associates acquired the papyri, further said that another roll was “more decayed, and much less neatly written.” One visitor to who saw the papyri after the purchase remembered the rolls to have been “torn by being taken from the roll of embalming salve which contained them, and some parts entirely lost.” The efforts of JS and his scribes to understand the writing on the documents—and of JS to display the papyri—likely resulted in further wear on the papyri.
Because of the deteriorating condition of the papyri, the mounted the fragments on repurposed paper of various sizes. Some of the backings for the papyri contain plans for the and maps of northern , suggesting the mounting was done sometime after the interior plans for the House of the Lord were no longer needed. Some smaller fragments were pasted on backing without apparent thought to the original layout of the characters on the papyri, suggesting, in some instances, a preference for display value rather than exact preservation. Small scraps of newsprint are found on some of the papyrus fragments, suggesting that newspaper may have been used to cover the working surface while the papyrus fragments were pasted to the backing. By 1840 in , Illinois, many of the papyri were also placed between panes of glass for better display and preservation.
Scribes copied some of the characters on the papyri into notebooks and incorporated other characters into the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the Book of Abraham manuscripts. While some of the copied characters correspond to characters on extant papyrus fragments, other characters presumably come from portions of the papyri that have been lost, and still others are of unknown origin.
Two vignettes from the papyri and one hypocephalus were published as part of the Book of Abraham in 1842. The vignette from the Fragment of Book of Breathing for Horos–A was published as Facsimile 1. This vignette, which was the opening illustration of the Book of Breathing, is unique—it does not appear on any other known copy of the Book of Breathing. Of the three illustrations that were published as facsimiles, this is the only one for which the original vignette on papyrus is still extant. Facsimile 2 was drawn from a now-nonextant round disk called a hypocephalus that may have been drawn on either papyrus, linen, clay, or another material. Such hypocephali were placed beneath the head of the deceased at burial to “envelop the head and body in flames or radiance, thus making the deceased divine.” Finally, Facsimile 3 represents a vignette that is similar to vignettes in other Books of Breathing but is no longer extant in the collection from .
All of the known surviving papyrus fragments are in the possession of the Church History Library. The fragments are presented here in the order in which they originally appeared on the papyrus rolls, but fragments appear together if they were pasted together in the nineteenth century. While some mounted fragments were later cut into pieces, they are presented here as they were originally affixed by the early Latter-day Saints. The images of the surviving fragments are magnified to show detail—they are not presented at actual size. An illustration on the next spread shows the various fragments from the Book of Breathing for Horos and the Book of the Dead for Semminis—the documents from which multiple fragments are extant—to demonstrate the relative size of the fragments and the order in which they appeared on the original papyrus rolls, which were intended to be read from right to left. The Miscellaneous Scraps of Book of the Dead for Semminis, circa 300–100 bc, are not included in the illustration because they come from many different locations on the original papyrus roll, which makes it impracticable to show them in their original context.
Fragment of Book of Breathing for Horos
Fragment of Book of the Dead for Semminis
Egyptian Papyri, circa 300–100 BC
In early July 1835 in , Ohio, JS and other individuals purchased a collection of Egyptian artifacts from , known as a traveling agent for a group of men from . In December 1835, described these relics as consisting of four mummies, “two rolls of papyrus,” and “two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c.” He said the papyri were “beautifully written in papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation.” The images that follow show the extant fragments of these papyri. Versos of the various loose fragments and small scraps that bear no discernible characters are not included here but may be viewed at josephsmithpapers.org. The surviving papyrus fragments represent only a portion of the original collection.
According to Egyptologists, the papyri purchased by JS and his associates originated in Thebes, Egypt (the present-day city of Luxor), and date to sometime between the third century and the first century bc. The papyri were unearthed with other artifacts by agents of Bernardino Drovetti in the late 1810s and early 1820s and arrived in America in the early 1830s. The papyri come from two genres of funerary texts—Books of Breathing and Books of the Dead—which were sometimes buried with the deceased in Greco-Roman Egypt. Fragments that apparently came from one papyrus roll contain text from a version of the Book of Breathing that was created for an ancient Egyptian priest named Horos. Ancient Books of Breathing included information that was essential for the deceased to attain resurrection and eternal life. Some scholars who have studied the Book of Breathing for Horos estimate that the roll originally measured between 150 and 156 centimeters; the extant portion of the papyrus is roughly 66 centimeters long. Fragments from a second roll contain text from a version of the Book of the Dead that was made for a woman named Semminis. Scholars estimate that this roll was originally about 300 or about 700 centimeters; the surviving portion is roughly 92 centimeters long. The Book of the Dead, which began to take shape at least as early as the seventeenth or sixteenth century bc, contains instructions for the dead to prepare for resurrection and secure their place among the gods. One surviving fragment purchased by JS and his associates is a vignette, or illustration, from chapter 125 of a different Book of the Dead—a version made for Nefer-ir-nebu.
JS and his fellow purchasers in were not the first to acquire mummies or papyri from Drovetti’s collection. The artifacts acquired by Drovetti and his agents were dispersed throughout Europe and . Indeed, Drovetti and his agents likely unearthed a family vault belonging to Horos and sold its contents: at least ten different funerary papyri, all made for the multigenerational family of Horos, have been identified in collections around the world. It is likely that the copy of the Book of Breathing for Horos acquired by JS and his associates came from the same ancient burial site as these other papyri. It is unknown when or where Drovetti’s network acquired the other papyrus fragments bought by JS and others.
The precise condition of the papyri at the time of the 1835 purchase is unknown, though evidence suggests that they were deteriorating even before the purchase. While the papyri were in a state of “excellent preservation” when they arrived in , by March 1835, a newspaper stated that the ends of one roll “are somewhat decayed, but at the centre the leaves are in a state of perfect preservation.” The account, written just a few months before JS and his associates acquired the papyri, further said that another roll was “more decayed, and much less neatly written.” One visitor to who saw the papyri after the purchase remembered the rolls to have been “torn by being taken from the roll of embalming salve which contained them, and some parts entirely lost.” The efforts of JS and his scribes to understand the writing on the documents—and of JS to display the papyri—likely resulted in further wear on the papyri.
Because of the deteriorating condition of the papyri, the mounted the fragments on repurposed paper of various sizes. Some of the backings for the papyri contain plans for the and maps of northern , suggesting the mounting was done sometime after the interior plans for the House of the Lord were no longer needed. Some smaller fragments were pasted on backing without apparent thought to the original layout of the characters on the papyri, suggesting, in some instances, a preference for display value rather than exact preservation. Small scraps of newsprint are found on some of the papyrus fragments, suggesting that newspaper may have been used to cover the working surface while the papyrus fragments were pasted to the backing. By 1840 in , Illinois, many of the papyri were also placed between panes of glass for better display and preservation.
Scribes copied some of the characters on the papyri into notebooks and incorporated other characters into the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the Book of Abraham manuscripts. While some of the copied characters correspond to characters on extant papyrus fragments, other characters presumably come from portions of the papyri that have been lost, and still others are of unknown origin.
Two vignettes from the papyri and one hypocephalus were published as part of the Book of Abraham in 1842. The vignette from the Fragment of Book of Breathing for Horos–A was published as Facsimile 1. This vignette, which was the opening illustration of the Book of Breathing, is unique—it does not appear on any other known copy of the Book of Breathing. Of the three illustrations that were published as facsimiles, this is the only one for which the original vignette on papyrus is still extant. Facsimile 2 was drawn from a now-nonextant round disk called a hypocephalus that may have been drawn on either papyrus, linen, clay, or another material. Such hypocephali were placed beneath the head of the deceased at burial to “envelop the head and body in flames or radiance, thus making the deceased divine.” Finally, Facsimile 3 represents a vignette that is similar to vignettes in other Books of Breathing but is no longer extant in the collection from .
All of the known surviving papyrus fragments are in the possession of the Church History Library. The fragments are presented here in the order in which they originally appeared on the papyrus rolls, but fragments appear together if they were pasted together in the nineteenth century. While some mounted fragments were later cut into pieces, they are presented here as they were originally affixed by the early Latter-day Saints. The images of the surviving fragments are magnified to show detail—they are not presented at actual size. An illustration on the next spread shows the various fragments from the Book of Breathing for Horos and the Book of the Dead for Semminis—the documents from which multiple fragments are extant—to demonstrate the relative size of the fragments and the order in which they appeared on the original papyrus rolls, which were intended to be read from right to left. The Miscellaneous Scraps of Book of the Dead for Semminis, circa 300–100 bc, are not included in the illustration because they come from many different locations on the original papyrus roll, which makes it impracticable to show them in their original context.
Fragment of Book of Breathing for Horos
Fragment of Book of the Dead for Semminis
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