Homepage Timeline Maps A-Z index Learning

Papyri from cartonnage - the Rifeh masks

From the mid third to the late first century BC, funerary workshops often used papyrus cartonnage (painted plastered waste-paper) to produce head-covers and elements to lay upon the chest and legs of the mummified and wrapped body. By retrieving the papyrus paper manuscripts from the cartonnage mummy-covers, late nineteenth and twentieth century excavators brought to light a great range of ancient writing, documentary and literary, in both Greek and Egyptian scripts and language.

In 1906-7, near modern Deir Rifeh, Flinders Petrie excavated the cemeteries of the local provincial capital Shashotep (Upper Egyptian province 11), and he recorded the following find in his excavation report (Petrie 1907: 29-30):

'At Rifeh some cartonnages made up of papyri were found. I damped, opened, and cleaned them, and then the Greek were submitted to Drs.Mahaffy and Smyly, and the demotic to Sir Herbert Thompson.'

Part of the collection has been under study by Professors Dorothy Thompson and Willy Clarysse (segments E1 and E4+5 are items P.Count 53 and 54 respectively in their publication Counting the People: population registers from Ptolemaic Egypt, Cambridge). The description of the find given in 1907 will require revision from their research. However, the 1907 description provides from one archaeological find an example of the range of content in papyrus cartonnage.

The Greek papyri, now in Trinity College Dublin, contained the following, according to Smyly:

  1. copy of a letter concerning a land survey, for conditions following 'the revolt of Chaonnophris' (the rebellion of kings Ankhwennefer and Horwennefer against Ptolemaic rule in 205-185 BC) - this has now been published by B McGing, Sammelbuch 24, 15972
  2. a petition in a year 34
  3. an oath in year 27 of Ptolemy VIII, the latest dated by both Macedonian and Egyptian months
  4. a petition referring to Lycopolis (the Greek name for Asyut) and a 'village of the Arabs' - now published by B McGing, Archiv fur Papyrusforschung 48, 2002, 42-66
  5. numerous fragments of public and private accounts

The demotic papyri from each head-cover were itemised by Thompson as about eighty pieces, most if not all now in the Petrie Museum (where the identity of an item is certain, its UC number is given in brackets after the description):

Headpiece A

Headpiece B

Headpiece C+D

Headpiece E

Headpiece F

Headpiece G

Headpiece H

Headpiece K

Note that there are several fragments of Rifeh cartonnage in the Petrie Museum for which the Herbert Thompson number is no longer present: UC 55862, 55876-55880, and 55890-55895.


Copyright © 2003 University College London. All rights reserved.