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Two Rolls

What was contained in Joseph Smith's papyrus collection?

What was recovered from the Met?

There were eleven papyrus fragments recovered from the Metropolitan Museum in 1966/7 by Professor Aziz Atiya. The fragments were glued to stiff paper, some of which contained architectural drawings of the Kirtland Temple. It was thus obvious from the start that the collection had some sort of connection to the fledgling LDS church in Ohio. Just what that connection was remained to be sorted out.

The eleven fragments, it soon turned out, could be grouped into two sets which had evidently at one time been part of two papyrus rolls. There were some supplementary pieces of papyrus left over, which did not seem to belong to either of the two rolls.

The first of these rolls was a breathing permit prepared for a man named "Hor", son of Osorwer and Tikhebyt, consisting of fragments designated I, X, XI. The second roll was a Book of the Dead for the lady Ta Shert Min, consisting of fragments designated II, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII and IX (the last of which was found in the Church Historian's office, not the Met). (The two remaining fragments, IIIA and IIIB, turned out to be a single page from another copy of the Book of the Dead, prepared for Amon-Re Neferirnub.)

How does this match up with the description of the collection owned by Joseph Smith?

Firstly, we can note that there are a lot of references in the historical writings to two rolls, plus a few unconnected fragments. The first description of the collection was given by Joseph Smith himself, and appears in the Documentary History of the Church:

'On the 3rd of July, Michael H. Chandler came to Kirtland to exhibit some Egyptian mummies. There were four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices.' (DHC, Vol 2, pg 235)

At this point, Smith seems to be unsure of the exact number of rolls. One might speculate that this is possibly because he could not decide if the third Book of the Dead fragment should actually be counted as a roll or as an unconnected fragment. In his later words on the subject, however, he seems to direct his attention to only two rolls:

'Soon after this, some of the Saints at Kirtland purchased the mummies and papyrus, a description of which will appear hereafter, and with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translations of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph in Egypt, etc., --a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them.' (DHC, Vol 2, pg 236).

Smith still does not give us the exact number of rolls in this statement, although he appears to imply that there were only two, the writings of Abraham, and the writings of Joseph.

Oliver Cowdery, who acted as a scribe for Smith, explicitly mentioned only two rolls in a letter printed in the "Messenger and Advocate".

'On opening the coffins he [i.e. Chandler] discovered that in connection with two of the bodies, were something rolled up with the same kind of linnen [sic], saturated with the same bitumen, which, when examined, proved to be two rolls of papyrus, previously mentioned. I may add that two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c. were found with others of the Mummies.' (Messenger and Advocate, Volume 2: No 3 (Dec 1835), pg 234).

Thus Oliver Cowdery confirms that the papyrus collection consisted of two rolls, and a few small fragments. This is reiterated elsewhere in his letter.

'I might continue my communication to a great length upon the different figures and characters represented upon the two rolls...' (Ibid, pg 236)
'...with a small quantity of papyrus, similar, (as he says,) to the astronomical representation, contained with the present two rolls, of which I previously spoke...' (Ibid, pg 236)

Joseph's other scribe, W. W. Phelps also made reference to two rolls. In a letter to his wife, he said the following:

'The last of June, four Egyptian mummies were brought here; there were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient writings with them...He [Joseph Smith] soon knew what they were and said they, the "rolls of papyrus", contained the sacred record kept of Joseph in Pharoah's court in Egypt, and the teachings of Father Abraham.' (W. Phelps ltr 19-20, July 1835, reprinted in 'Era' 45, (1942), pg 529).

Thus, the testimony of those who actually handled the papyri seems to be unanimous - Joseph Smith's collection consisted of two papyrus rolls, and an assortment of smaller fragments.

Can we connect the two collections?

Proceeding on the assumption that Smith's collection consisted of two rolls, can we connect these to the two rolls recovered from the Met in 1967?

The roll designated as the 'breathing permit' for Hor affords us an important clue. Part of this roll (the fragment designated no. I) is without a doubt the source of Facsimile no. 1 printed in the Book of Abraham. (The papyrus seems to have some large lacunae which were filled in when printed in the LDS publications. This has some important ramifications, as we will consider later). Thus, there is good reason to take a closer look at this roll for a possible candidate for the roll that Smith designated 'the writings of Abraham'. A further important clue is furnished by the fact that the lacunae around the edge of facsimile no. 2 appear to have been filled in with characters taken from fragment no. XI (usually referred to as the 'small sensen papyrus'), a part of the Book of Breathings. Finally, more characters from the small sensen papyrus appear in the left column of some of the handwritten manuscripts of the Book of Abraham.

We can thus establish with some certainty that the roll designated as the Book of Breathings for Hor was one of the rolls in Smith's possession. Whether this papyrus actually provided the source for the Book of Abraham will be considered later. At this point, we are still trying to determine what Joseph's collection consisted of.

What of the other roll, the one designated as the 'writings of Joseph in Egypt'?

In the same letter that he mentioned the two rolls, Oliver Cowdery gave a description of one of the rolls. This description does not match the Book of Breathings - it is, however, quite a good description of the Book of the Dead for Ta-Shert-Min.

We can break Cowdery's quote down into points as follows:

a) '...beautifully written upon papyrus...'
b) '...with black, and a small part, red ink or paint...'
c) '...in perfect preservation...'
(DHC Vol 2, pg 348 and Messenger and Advocate, Vol 2, Number 3, pg 234).

The Book of the Dead roll, it turns out, is 'beautifully written', is in a good state of preservation, and, most important of all, contains numerous, easily visible rubrics (red paint). The conclusion is obvious. When Oliver Cowdery gave his description of '...the writings of Abraham and Joseph...', he gave pride of place to the Book of the Dead roll, and tended to leave the Book of Breathings out of his discussion. Is there any evidence to back up this conclusion? Yes - later in the same letter, Cowdery gives a description of the 'record'.

'The representation of the god-head--three, yet in one, is curiously drawn...'
'The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able
to walk, standing in front of, and near a female figure...'
'Enoch's pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll.'
'The inner end of the same roll, (Joseph's record), presents a representation of the judgment.'

The first three of these figures can easily be picked out of the Book of the Dead scroll now in the possession of the Church. (Click here for pictures). The inner end of the roll was not recovered with the other papyri from the New York Met, but, if it followed the many other copies of the Book of the Dead from the same period still extant, it would have contained a vignette of the deceased being led into the presence of Osiris, which may be what Cowdery was referring to. (This is roughly similar to facsimile no. 3, now printed in the Book of Abraham).

A further piece of evidence comes from a letter written by one Charlotte Haven to her mother, after viewing Joseph Smith's papyri. She writes:

'Then she [i.e. Lucy Smith] turned to a long table, set her candlestick down, and opened a long roll of manuscript, saying it was "the writing of Abraham and Isaac, written in Hebrew and Sanscrit[sic]," and she read several minutes from it as if it were English. It sounded very much like passages from the Old Testament-and it might have been for anything we knew-but she said she read it through the inspiration of her son Joseph, in whom she seemed to have perfect confidence. Then in the same way she interpreted to us hieroglyphics from another roll. One was Mother Eve being tempted by the serpent, who-the serpent, I mean-was standing on the tip of his tail, which with his two legs formed a tripod, and had his head in Eve's ear.' (Charlotte Haven to her mother, 19 February 1843, in "A girl's letters from Nauvoo," The Overland Monthly, second series, 16 December 1890: 623-24.)

The description of the vignette given by Haven is a good match for a vignette on the Book of the Dead fragment V (previously described by Cowdery), given that Charlotte obviously wrote her account some time after leaving the Smith household.


What can we conclude from the foregoing? There seems to be good reason to believe that the two rolls recovered from the Metropolitan Museum in 1967 match the description of the rolls that Smith had in his possession.

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