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Tut Exhibit - King Tutankhamun Exhibit, Collection: Other Items - Ivory Papyrus Burnisher


The Tutankhamun Exhibit

Other Items

Two piece ivory papyrus burnisher

Ivory Papyrus Burnisher


This handsome object was found with a small group of articles used in writing. Although uncommon, it is not unique, nor is it the only instrument of its kind found in association with the equipment of a scribe. Carter himself discovered a similar too, but made of wood, with a set of writing implements in a tomb at Thebes, when he was excavating for Lord Carnarvon in the early years of this century, and there are four examples in the Egyptian collection of the Metropolitan Museum, one of which, though incomplete, still bears the name of its owner, the scribe Merymatt. From their shape, it has been deduced that they were used for polishing sheets of papyrus in order to remove slight irregularities on the surface that would hinder the even application of ink.

Papyrus, from which our word paper is derived, was used by the ancient Egyptians from very early times. The oldest written specimens known at present date from the end of the Fifth Dynasty (about 2380 B.C.), but an unwritten roll of material that has been identified as papyrus was found in a First Dynasty tomb (about 3000 B.C.) at Sakkara, and the hieroglyphic sing that probably represents a roll of papyrus was used as early as the First Dynasty.

Sheets of papyrus were made from the stems of a sedge plant (Cyperus papyrus) that, in ancient times, grew in the marshes of Lower Egypt. In the process of manufacture the stems were first cut into pieces of uniform length, generally about 15 3/4 inches (40 cm.), and the green outer rind was peeled off. The white inner pith of each piece was then divided lengthwise into a number of thin, flat strips, either by slicing it with a knife or again by peeling. When these preparatory stages were finished, some of the strips were laid side by side, perhaps with a fine overlap, on a flat board, followed by a second layer of strips, similarly arranged but superimposed on the first layer and laid at right angles to it. By beating the double layer with a wooden mallet, the sap was released and both the individual strips and the two layers became firmly welded together to form, when dry, a very durable sheet of writing material. If a document was too long for one sheet, additional sheets were pasted together with an adhesive. A burnisher would be particularly useful for smoothing the step in a join of such a kind.

Tutankhamun's burnisher is composed of two pieces, the head and the handle, both of which are made of ivory. The head is capped with gold foil, cushioned on a strip of linen coated with an adhesive on both top and bottom surfaces. It is inscribed with his name and his throne name, coupled with his titles and the regular phrase "Given life like [the sun god] Ra". Carved in one piece with the head is a stylized lily, the corolla of which is shaped to fit the rectangular outline of the head, although the sepals are represented naturalistically. Unless the yellow appendages are merely decorative, they may be intended to suggest a tie attaching the head to the flower. The slender handle reproduces the thin stem of the lily, here given the appearance of greater strength by the binding at the junction of the flower and the stem. It is evident that such a handle would not withstand the strain imposed on it in use and therefore the burnisher was probably a model intended for funerary purposes. At the base of the handle is a terminal in the form of a papyrus flower.

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