The surprises of three Egyptian papyri

There is a whole city under the Louvre museum. An underground city, invisible, silent. A maze of long corridors, stairs, large rooms full of cupboards now empty because the reserves have been moved. It is in one of these vast rooms that we have been restoring for more than three months a small rather exceptional collection of Egyptian papyri, which have held many surprises.

They are called “Reverseaux papyrus”, named after Count Denis Jacques Léopold Guéau de Reverseaux (1788-1852), captain of the French royal navy under the Restoration, who probably acquired it in Egypt in 1823. “This brings us back to the heyday of Egyptology, underlines Vincent Rondot, director of the department of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre. 1823 is just a year after Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphics. We go back directly to this ancient era of the art market and its romantic scent. “

Although it is not known where, when and by whom the documents were discovered, it is likely that they came from a tomb, the hot and dry climate of Egypt allowing the conservation of plant materials. “We know of cases of a private library buried with the dead, specifies Christophe Barbotin, curator at the Louvre and specialist in written sources from the Pharaonic era. The scholar would leave with his scrolls to be able to read a book in the other world… ”

“This kind of document is no longer on the art market. It was a magnificent surprise ”, Christophe Barbotin, curator at the Louvre

The two “Reverseaux papyri” have passed through the generations and, nearly two centuries after coming into the hands of the count, they were put up for sale by his distant heirs. At the end of 2019, Le Louvre acquired the lot. The documents turn out to be very different. The first, written in a beautiful cursive hieroglyphic script – that is to say simplified, which means that all the details of the signs are not represented -, is “An extract from the Book of the Dead, explains Christophe Barbotin. It is a collection of formulas to ensure that the dead person survive in the next world, continue to eat and drink… and not to work ”.

Despite the pretty craftsmanship of this document, the text of which is well known to specialists, the interest and curiosity of the Louvre Egyptologists focused above all on the second papyrus. First, because he was still rolled over. “This kind of document is no longer on the art market, assures Christophe Barbotin. It was a magnificent surprise. I didn’t think in my career that I would ever see this. “

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