Study in the (mis)uses of Papyrus Cartonnage

by Robert Kraft (27 Sept 2006)

This essay describes the way in which cartonnage containing attractive color representations has been mutilated for the sake of increasing income from the sale of its pieces. This particular example is taken from the eBay sales by Bruce Ferrini and associates in 2005-2006, but it is probably typical of what has happened to cartonnage papyri through the years, when preservation was not a primary motivating factor.

Here is a cartonnage fragment that has preserved both (1) a plastered and painted face surface on the left, and (2) a plastered unpainted other side on the right. Unfortunately, it has obviously been cut from the originally surrounding material, and probably broken off as well. An image of the once intact piece can be seen here.

It is made up of two or more layers of papyri between the two plastered surfaces, to which the plaster has been applied. Here you can see the painted design below, and the partial separation of papyrus layers:


Looking back at the first image, note that part of the painted surface is missing, leaving exposed a bare section of papyrus. If the partial separation between the two outer surfaces were continued, something like the following would happen:

cart036-039o    cart036-039p

This joined image comes from the same original cartonnage as our first example, showing the back side first.  In the middle of  the fragment to the right on the backside is a patch of the yellowish unpainted plaster, while around it the various layers of papyri have been torn away, leaving various fiber patterns. Fortunately, in this case, the surface of the front image depicting a winged figure is relatively undamaged.

The papyri layers that originally lay between the two plastered surfaces might have contained writing, and the splitting off of papyri layers is presumably a crude attempt to find such saleable gems. Here is an example of a split off fragment that proved to be blank, and accordingly sold for a lesser price than fragments with writing:

cart055-2a  cart055-2b

On the left is a relatively smooth surface, probably the "back" of a cartonnage fragment. On the right are the clear evidences of violent separation of this layer or group of layers from the presumed front portion. It needs to be determined, if possible, whether any originally intact surfaces remain under the somewhat confused patterns on the right, and if so, how to remove the obstructing layer(s) as carefully as possible, with as little further damage as possible.