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Athena Review Vol.2, no.2


Graeco-Roman Papyrus Documents from Egypt


A wealth of papyrus documents from the Graeco-Roman era have come to light on the daily lives of ancient people in Egypt, including their love letters and marriage contracts, tax and bank accounts, commodity lists, birth records, divorce cases, temple offerings, and most other conceivable types of memoranda, whether personal, financial, or religious. Since the 1890s, masses of papyrus writings in Greek, Coptic, demotic, and Arabic have been unearthed in Graeco-Roman settlements in the Fayum near the Nile delta (figs.1,2). In terms of sheer quantity, these documentary papyri have been accumulating much faster than the best scholarly efforts to keep pace. The same Fayum archaeological deposits have produced important lost texts of literary and religious works.  Both documentary and literary papyri are now being published and placed on the Internet through a consortium of universities and museums called APIS (Advanced Papyrological Information Symposium). Through these efforts, a far larger sample of papyrus writings of all kinds are currently available to both scholars and the general public than ever before. Links from  the six major APIS websites in the US, and affiliated European projects, are included in this article.

The papyri are primarily written in Greek, with demotic Egyptian, Coptic, Latin, and Arabic also used. During the Ptolemaic period (332-31 BC), Greek colonists settled throughout the Delta and lower Nile. The old pharaonic system of nomes or administrative districts was retained, with Greeks now occupying the key positions of strategos or top provincial officer, and nomarch or financial officer. The port city of Alexandria became a major center of commerce and learning, with Greek the dominant language of Roman, Jewish, Greek, and Egyptian residents. After Octavius defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC to begin Roman rule, Greek remained as the official written language of the eastern Roman empire, gradually replacing the native demotic in common use, although both scripts were sometimes used together in contracts and other documents. Latin, language of the western Roman empire, was only occasionally used in Egyptian papyrus writings, as in birth records (fig.3).

In the Graeco-Roman period the native language evolved from demotic into Coptic, the last stage of ancient Egyptian . “Copt” is an Arabic term for “Egyptian,” like the Greek name “Aegyptos.” By the early centuries AD, Coptic was written in its own script, a close variant of the Greek alphabet. Coptic script added seven signs borrowed from demotic to accommodate sounds in spoken Egyptian not found in Greek (just as Greek had previously added or deleted characters from the original Phoenician alphabet). Coptic also replaced many older Egyptian religious words with Greek terms. The Coptic script, expanding to six dialects, was used extensively in Egypt during the 3rd-8th centuries AD, especially among early Christian communities.

[Fig.1: Lower Egypt, with sites of Graeco-Roman papyrus finds (red circles). Inset shows the Fayum region in fig.2 (after Grenfell et al. 1900; Baines & Málek, 1988).]

With the advent of Islam in the mid 7th century AD, Arabic script came into general use in Egypt, replacing Coptic. The Arabic alphabet, derived in the 4th century AD from the little-known Nabatean alphabet, has 28 letters (all consonants), including six added to accommodate Arabic sounds. Arabic has evolved into two basic scripts, the thicker-stroked Kufic (from Al Kufa in Mesopotamia), and Naskhi, a cursive script much used on papyrus, and the ancestor of modern Arabic writing. APIS collections have many 7th-10th century Arabic documents.

Papyrus, source of our modern word “paper,” is a mat-like fabric made from the large, aquatic papyrus reed Cyperus papyrus. This plant, often shown in ancient Egyptian art, grew in the swampy riverine zones of lower Egypt and the Nile delta. Plants of the Cyperaceae family grow worldwide in subtropical swamps and river edges. Interestingly, Cyperus papyrus no longer grows in Egypt. To make the thin papyrus matting used for writing, the husk was removed from the large reed stalks, whose pithy stems were cut into strips. These were laid in parallel rows on a flat surface, with a second layer placed across the first. The resultant mat was moistened with water, pressed into a single sheet, dried in the sun, and smoothed with a shell or bone. Standard terminology for papyrus documents defines the smoother side where the fibers ran horizontally as the “front” or recto, while the rougher “back” is called the verso. Writing was done with a brush, reed, or quill pen and ink. The quality of papyrus manufacture varied widely between local and royal workshops. The relatively high cost of papyrus meant that the coarser verso, at first used only for addresses or headings, was often later reused as a new document. Writings on such sheets are listed separately in university and museum collections as r (recto) and v (verso), as P.Oxy.1000r (ie, the recto side of Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1000).

Most papyrus documents from the Graeco-Roman era (332 BC-AD 400) have surfaced in the lower Nile and Fayum lake district, the main centers of Greek colonization (figs.1,2). In 1877, ushering in the modern era of Greek papyri, layers of documents were found at Arsinoë (Krokodilopolis) in the Fayum, dating mainly from the Byzantine period of AD 330-650. These included many tax lists and receipts, now conserved in Vienna, Paris, London, Oxford, and Berlin museums. After 1877, native digging of papyri for sale to dealers became intense at Arsinoë, Dimê (Sacnopaei Nesus) and other Fayum sites, as Grenfell et al. (1900) describe.  In 1888-90 the British archaeologist William Flinders Petrie, while excavating on the Hawâra plateau, discovered that the paper maché cartonnage used for Ptolemaic-era mummy cases at Hawâra and Gurob cemeteries included papyrus scraps with Greek writing.While most were business and personal documents, these also included important literary fragments from Homer, Plato, and Euripides.

[Fig.2: Fayum sites with papyrus finds, with Ptolemaic and Roman boundaries of Lake Moeris (after Grenfell et al. 1900).]

In 1895-6, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt began work at Karanis, source of many papyri already at Berlin, London and Vienna. Their biggest finds began during the next year, 1896-7, at the Nile town of Behneseh (ancient Oxyrhynchus), just south of the Fayum. In 1899-1900 they excavated at Umm el Baragat (Tebtunis) in the Southwest Fayum, “an important site...which had escaped the notice of the dealers.” At the Tebtunis cemetery they found a strikingly new source of papyri from the cartonnage of mummified crocodiles. The practice of burying sacred crocodiles, described by the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, reached its peak during the late Ptolemaic and early Roman periods. As Grenfell (1902) relates, “the pits were all quite shallow, rarely exceeding a metre in depth, and the crocodiles were sometimes buried singly, but often in groups of five or ten or even more, and with their heads pointing generally to the north.” Grenfell and Hunt's findings were first published in a series of reports funded by the Egypt Exploration Fund (1899-1934). Since then, tens of thousands more papyrus documents have been published, while an estimated ten times that number (at least 500,000) are in museum collections but still unpublished.

Many of the Graeco-Roman documents fortunately include the exact day, month, and year of a specific ruler’s reign. The oldest dated Greek papyrus in Egypt is a marriage contract of 311 BC from Elephantine (P.Eleph.1), soon after the conquest by Alexander (Hunt and Edgar 1934). The many papyri lacking precise dates can often be placed to within a few decades of their origin by a combination of archaeological context, information in the text, and the similarity of the handwriting to known documents. Paleography (the study of ancient handwritings) has succeeded in dating many important literary and biblical texts as well as everyday writings in Egypt (Kenyon 1970, Davis 1933).

Museum collections and APIS: In the last few years, the Internet has given rise to a level of worldwide accessibility of papyri and other documents unimaginable several generations ago when the materials were first being recovered. Central to this effort has been The Advanced Papyrological Information Symposium or APIS, a joint project of Columbia University, Duke University, Princeton University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Yale University, and the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Other major collections with websites are are at the University of Heidelberg, Oxford University, the University of Lecce, and the University of Copenhagen. The six USA collections, with approximately 45,000 items, contain the vast majority of American papyrus holdings. The APIS project has focused on making these often untapped historic resources available to a wider public over the Internet through scanned images and descriptions. The documents are catalogued by their site of discovery (as P.Oxy.1001 for Oxyrhynchus papyrus, number 1001, or P.Tebt.35 for Tebtunis papyrus 35), or by where they are currently held (ie., P.Duk.inv for holdings at Duke University, or P.Princeton for those at Princeton.

Duke University (Winston Salem, NC) has 1223 catalogued papyri acquired mainly between 1967 and 1988. Many came from mummy cartonnage found in a cemetery near Herakleopolis in the Fayum (fig.2). Most Duke papyri (catalogued as P.Duk.inv) have different texts on their recto and verso sides, with texts in Greek, demotic, Coptic, Arabic, and Latin. Curators Peter van Minnen and Suzanne Corr have produced 2000 scanned color images of papyri linked to their catalogue records in the web site, which is comprehensive and filled with interesting material.

[Fig.3: mummified crocodiles from Tebtunis (Egypt Exploration Fund).]

The University of California at Berkeley has over 21,000 fragments (many small), numerically the largest collection in the Americas. All came from 1899-1900 excavations by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt at Tebtunis for the University of California, and funded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Three lots of papyri , now conserved in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, were recovered at Tebtunis. The largest, dating from the late 2nd-early 1st centuries BC, came from cartonnage or wrappings used in the mummification of crocodiles at the shrines of Sobek (Sebek), the Fayum crocodile god (figs.3-5). A second source of Tebtunis papyri was cartonnage from human mummies, almost all dating from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Finally, a number of papyri came from the ruins of the town, mainly from the first three centuries AD. Most of the overall collection is in Greek, but there is also a significant body of material in demotic.

[Fig.4: Hieroglyphs for the name Sobek, the crocodile god. From left to right, the first three syllabic glyphs stand for S,B,K (vowels not shown), followed by the determinative signs for crocodile and temple (Budge 1893).]

The University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI) has 10,000 papyrus fragments covering two millennia from ca. 1000 BC to 1000 AD in hieratic, demotic, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Latin, and Aramaic. Most, as is typical of APIS collections, are in Greek and date from ca. 350 BC-AD 650. Beginning its large-scale collecting in 1920, Michigan acquired many papyri through a “cartel” made up of the British Museum, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and a number of European universities. Michigan’s holdings grew after 1924-1935 excavations at the ancient Egyptian town of Karanis. Most papyri from this expedition were returned to the Egyptian government in 1954, but about 1,000 fragments and photographs of many others remained at Michigan, which also has texts written on lead, wax and wooden tablets, ostraca (pot sherds), and parchment.

[Fig.5: Sobek, the crocodile god, shown holding a staff and ankh. His helmet includes horns, a sundisk, and feathers (Erman 1894).]

Columbia University (New York, NY) began its papyrus collection in about 1900 with texts provided by the Egypt Exploration Fund. The University then acquired many more items through the British Museum cartel. The papyrus collection today has about 800 inventory numbers, with a wide range of languages and a preponderance of Greek texts similar to that at Michigan. Columbia also has a large collection of 3,600 ostraca bought from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1964-5, mainly in Coptic but also in hieratic, demotic, and Greek. In 1994 Dr. Raffaella Cribiore began cataloguing the previously unstudied Coptic ostraca.

Princeton University (Princeton, NJ) has a collection of approximately 1,250 papyri begun (as with other APIS members) from Egypt Exploration Society distributions. Most holdings were then acquired through the British Museum cartel and 1920’s purchases by Robert Garrett later donated to Princeton in 1942. About two-thirds of the collection (mainly in Greek) have been published or inventoried. Hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic, Coptic, Syriac, and Arabic texts are also represented, in a collection curated by Joseph Manning of the Department of Classics.

Yale University (New Haven, CT) has a collection of 4,800 papyri began in 1889 with a gift of texts from the original “breakthrough” mummy cartonnage found by W.M. Flinders Petrie at Hawâra. Additions came in the 1910s through distributions of the Egypt Exploration Fund, and in the 1920s through the British Museum cartel. After 1925, more papyri came from donations by historian Michael Rostovtzeff and other Yale faculty members. Yale excavations at the Near Eastern site of Dura-Europos in the 1920s and 1930s yielded several hundred more items including many Latin texts. A sizable number of Arabic documents and other materials were then acquired in the 1930s through 1960s. The Yale material dates from ca. 1700 BC to the 12th century AD, primarily within the Roman and Byzantine periods. Although most items in the collection are Greek, there are unusually many Latin and Arabic papyri, as well as texts in Pahlavi, Syriac, and Hebrew.

The collections are most generally divided into literary and non-literary papyri. The non-literary papyrus documents represent a very wide spectrum of activities, from formal surveys and edicts filled with conventional legalisms, to personal notes and lists jotted down quickly and informally on many subjects.

[Fig.6: Ptolemaic (Late 3rd c. BC) account in Greek from Tebtunis, detailing government revenues from fishing (P.Tebt.867; Hunt Smyly, and Edgar 1933).]

Accounts and Lists: In ancient Egypt, just as today, records were kept on the organization and day-to-day expenditures for both businesses and households. Among the Tebtunis papyri recovered from the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, for example, are dozens of accounts, from rents or leases, payments in kind, sale of wheat , and banker’s receipts. Such documents constitute clear evidence that individuals during the ancient, Graeco-Roman era had many of the same concerns we have with making ends meet. Viewed more systematically, such evidence reveals ancient patterns of buying and selling, crops and other commodities, variations in production, and related fluctuation of prices and currencies. Numerous private accounts from Oxyrhynchus, Tebtunis, Arsinoë, and other towns list itemized household expenditures, showing the flavor and cost of living about two thousand years ago. One Oxyrhynchus household account written in AD 1 (P.Oxy.736) includes a “pigeon for the children,” and also shows two entries for “perfume for the dispatch of the mummy.” Another pigeon-related example from Tebtunis (P.Tebt.839) shows that a man named Cleon paid a banker at Krokodilopolis 1000 copper drachmae in tax for pigeon-houses at Oxyrhyncha. A banker’s notes from the 2nd century BC (P.Tebt.890) contain a wealth of detail on the prices of copper, textiles, honey, and exchange rates for silver and gold drachmae. Small business accounts from about the same period (P.Tebt.887) show the receipts and expenses of an oil merchant, who sold both the government-controlled Egyptian oil for 60 drachmae a cotyla, and the more expensive foreign oil, costing 80 drachmae. A contemporary document (P.Tebt.889) lists the travelling expenses of three men sailing in a boat down the Nile, along with a valuable series of place names from their stops.

Contracts and agreements: Formally written, legal or quasi-legal documents include marriage agreements; contracts on terms of employment and apprenticeship; and the sale, loan, and lease of goods and property. Also found are receipts of satisfactory execution of a contract and for related payments. Marriage-related documents show that both weddings and divorce were treated in what today would be considered a business-like manner. One marriage contract in AD 260 from Oxyrhynchus (P.Oxy.1273) covers nuptial arrangements for Aurelia Tausiris and Aurelius Arsinous (Aurelia, “golden,” is a much-used conventional term of respect). Here a dowry of jewelry and clothing has been already received by the groom. The next step is for the couple to “live together blamelessly, observing the duties of marriage.” In case of separation, however, it stipulates the bride’s family can regain possession of the dowry. There is also a clause covering the payment of child support should the bride be pregnant at the time of a separation.

Letters and Correspondence includes both personal letters sent to friends, relatives, and associates, and more formal petitions sent to government officials, calling on their influence and power to render some form of assistance. In one petition from AD 193 (P.BGU.515), expressing sentiments with which one can readily sympathize today, a farmer named Syrus writes to the Roman centurion Ammonius Paternus asking for help in bringing tax-collectors to justice. Syrus, who had paid 90% of his corn-dues to the village of Karanis, says the tax-collectors came to his house for the remainder while he was out in the fields and injured his mother. Private letters from Fayum towns of two millennia ago show how little some things have changed. Notes to family and friends often discuss impending visits and ask if the relatives are healthy, sometimes offering prayers on their behalf. Writers often ask for specific items or home-grown luxuries (ie., honey). In a letter from Lucius of Oxyrhynchus to his brother Apolinarius in the 2nd or 3rd century AD (P.Oxy.928), Lucius passes on the information that a woman his brother once liked has been recently widowed, and advises that he “act before she is entrapped.” Then, before a final salutation, he adds “If you are making pickled fish for yourself, send me a jar too.”

Fig.7: Birth certificate in Latin, found at Oxyrhynchus. The fragmentary document dates from 194-196, and records a son of Ulpia Sabrina born in Alexandria (P.Oxy 894).]

Government Accounting, Taxation, and Census Records are also legion in late Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Examples include records for state granaries or for other crops on crown lands in Herakleopolite, the nome or administrative district of Tebtunis, as well as reports on unproductive land. Other examples from the late 3rd century BC (P.Tebt.867; P.Duk.inv.115v) detail government revenue from the collection of fish (fig.6). Another text (P.Tebt.857) records the seemingly suspicious disappearance from a government granary of a quantity of olyra, a type of spelt wheat used for making bread. Numerous registers list both eligible tax-payers (P.Tebt. 3-95) and taxpaying villages (P.Oxy.1285), while other surveys show landowners, and specific plots and their values (P.Tebt.833). Individual tax “farmers” collecting land acreage duties under government contract generated a steady flow of reports to the strategi (administrators), using standard formulae in both the late Ptolemaic era (P.Tebt.58) and early centuries AD (P.Oxy.1283). Taxes were paid for grain and produce as well as for revenues gained by the sale of wine, beer, and oil, the latter a government monopoly (P.Tebt.865)

Regarding government payrolls, one papyrus (P.Tebt.856) details allowances to soldiers and other state employees, and records the annual dispatches to regional centers such as Alexandria. Other papyri show the names of soldiers in a cohort (P.BGU.66), expenditures for public games (P.Oxy.1050), recipients of mail in a given year (ie., P.Hib.110 for AD 255), and individual birth certificates (fig.7). Together, these ancient documents provide levels of detail for historical research often not known even for much more recent periods.


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