Three new papyri for the Louvre


6 July 2022

In late 2019, three papyri, known as the ‘Reverseaux Papyri’ after their first owner, entered the Louvre. One of them, the ‘Reverseaux I Papyrus’, is an anthology of scribal writings of exceptional interest. 

Captain de Reverseaux (1788–1852) was a commanding office in the French Royal Navy during the Restoration and later under the July Monarchy. He may have acquired the three manuscripts in 1823 from Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul-general of Egypt in Alexandria, who had built up a vast collection of Egyptian antiquities at that time. Until their acquisition by the Louvre, the papyri were completely unknown, having remained in De Reverseaux’s family for two hundred years.

The ‘Reverseaux II Papyrus’: A Book of the Dead 

The first papyrus was a fragment from the Book of the Dead, i.e. one of the collections of texts that the Egyptians would take with them beyond the grave to guard against the dangers that awaited them there. The fragment is inscribed with Chapter 17, including a series of questions in red ink and the traces of beautifully drawn vignettes. It is written in simplified or cursive hieroglyphs. The manuscript, which belonged to a scribe by the name of Paherypdjet, dates from the late 14th or early 13th century BC.  

The ‘Reverseaux III Papyrus’: A Letter from a Boat Master 

This papyrus, which was still rolled up prior to its conservation work, contains the letter from the boat master Belpunait to the scribe Ramose, during the reign of Ramses II (c. 1279–1213 BC). It is written in a very handsome hieratic script – the individual, handwritten version of hieroglyphs. In keeping with usual practice, formal greetings account for almost half of the missive, followed by an injunction to Ramose not to remove the mast of his boat. The various divisions of Egyptian administration were indeed sometimes known to step on each other’s toes. On the back of the manuscript are the names of the sender and the recipient, just like on our modern envelopes. 

The ‘Reverseaux I Papyrus’: An extraordinary anthology of scribal writings 

The Reverseaux I Papyrus is the most important of the three. Only partially unrolled when purchased, it stood 70 cm in height. Following conservation work, it now measures 222 cm! It comprises two scrolls that had been glued together since antiquity, though the beginning is missing. Written by at least three different scribes in a hieratic calligraphy punctuated with red, as was the custom for literary texts of the time, it provides a few selected excerpts that any student bound for an extensive administrative career was expected to know. Such anthologies (or ‘miscellanies’) were well known in the New Kingdom at the time of the Ramses pharaohs (13th–11th centuries BC), but until now were virtually absent from the Louvre’s collection. Six texts are presented in succession:

  • The end of a prayer to the god Amun-Ra of Karnak, beseeching his help in a year of need, also known from a papyrus in the British Museum, London.  
  • Reprimands to a wayward student, also contained in two other manuscripts now in the British Museum. The aim was to restore discipline to a young man who had become disillusioned with his studies because, according to the text, ‘the ear is on your back’. This implies that knowledge could only be acquired through beatings with a stick. Indeed, the Egyptian word sebayt refers both to ‘teaching’ and ‘punishment’.
  • The private prayer to Amun-Ra, however, was previously unknown. Expressed in most unusual terms, comparing the god to the wind and the sea, this prayer seeks to commune with the god in the innermost depths of one’s being. Such a text must have been quite rare at the time as it contains a few misunderstandings that are found nowhere else on the manuscript. 
  • The reprimands to a ruffian have already been highlighted. This gentleman was also a student – but in name only! Brawls, drunkenness and harlots were to him a thousand times more appealing than books, to the moralist’s great dismay but to our great delight as modern readers. 
  • The introduction to the satirical letter of the scribe Hori is a great classic of anthologies of this period. In it, the scribes use hyperbole and stylistic flourishes to poke fun at their own shortcomings. What is unique about this new version is the fact that the author is no longer referred to as the scribe Hori, but as Panehesy, meaning ‘the Nubian’ in Egyptian. Ascribing the authorship of a text as important as this one to a foreigner, considered as an enemy of Egypt, was clearly meant as a kind of prank. 
  • The final text – a pseudo delivery note for leather sandals to a cobbler – has no known equivalent elsewhere. Its placement at the end of the manuscript was meant to remind students of the realities of the administrative routine they would be faced with every day in the course of their duties. 

The back of the papyrus bears traces of exercises involving written characters and even one sentence. A number of papyrus strips have been glued to the back in an attempt to repair the manuscript, thus proving that it was in use for a long time. The set as a whole is remarkable and sheds new light on ancient Egypt, its history and its literary and popular culture. 

Episode 1: An Introduction to the Reverseaux Papyrus

Episode 2: An Astonishing Work of Art

Episode 3: Conservation Treatment

Episode 4: The Book of the Dead

Episode 5: Deciphering Hieroglyphics

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