Researchers have found a new natural method to clean and preserve valuable ancient Egyptian papyri threatened by the action of fungi and bacteria. It involves wasabi, a plant native to Japan known for its bactericidal and fungicidal properties.

The papyri are written documents on strips of paper made from papyrus fiber, an aquatic plant that abundantly grew in the Nile Valley. Egyptians used them as writing supports for thousands of years, leaving written records on various subjects such as literature, law, or medicine.

Unfortunately, many of these papyri are in a delicate state of preservation due to the activity of microorganisms like fungi and bacteria. Until now, methods used to clean and disinfect the papyri posed some challenges. Chemicals were employed that, while effectively eliminating microbes, sometimes damaged the papyrus fiber or altered the pigments of the illustrations.

Other physical methods like ultraviolet rays or heat also did not always guarantee the complete elimination of biological agents without causing collateral damage. This is where wasabi comes into play.

A group of researchers from the Conservation Center of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo has recently discovered that the vapors from this plant have a potent fungicidal and bactericidal power, capable of eliminating all microorganisms on the papyri without causing any harm to their structure or colors.

To reach this conclusion, scientists simulated microbiological contamination on samples of papyrus with different pigments, including red, yellow, and blue. They then exposed the samples to vapors of aqueous wasabi extract for 72 hours. After completing the treatment, they verified through microbiological, mechanical, and spectroscopic analyses that all microbes had been eliminated without causing alterations to the fiber or pigments.

Even after subjecting the treated samples to accelerated aging equivalent to 100 years, no changes were detected, confirming the long-term effectiveness and compatibility of the wasabi treatment. This represents a substantial advantage over other existing methods.

In this way, researchers demonstrated that wasabi provides a natural and safe alternative for disinfecting ancient papyri in a way that preserves their physical and chemical integrity. They aim to extend this technique to the cleaning and protection of other heritage objects such as scrolls or murals threatened by microbes.


Sources

Hanadi Saada, Moamen Othman, et al., A safely green treatment of bio-deteriorated painted archaeological papyri by Wasabi. Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 163, March 2024, 105936. doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2024.105936


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