Union Académique Internationale

Papyrus-Archives. Edition and Studies

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Project nº72, adopted in 2005

Thanks to the exceptional climatic circumstances of the Nile valley, perishable material such as papyri was preserved here in large numbers, allowing us to study local history in similar detail as for medieval towns, universities or parishes, which is normally impossible in Antiquity. Most of this material was found either by Egyptian farmers destroying the mud-brick houses of ancient villages in search of fertiliser or by papyrus hunting expeditions with little or no archaeological interest. Still it is clear that relatively few papyri were found in isolation. Usually they were still grouped when excavated : family papers could be kept in a box or jar, or bound together and put in a window-recess; discarded papers might have survived after having been put aside; administrative documents were sometimes reused for stuffing sacred crocodiles or making papyrus cartonnage; even the papyri on the rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus were often thrown away in groups and the origin of a papyrus from a particular section may allow to link it with other texts. But detailed descriptions of the finds are rare and more often than not the connection between papyri of a single find has to be painfully reconstructed by the editor of the texts many years after their discovery.

Such groups of texts kept together by institutions or individuals in Antiquity, include both public and private papers. The boundaries between public and private are in fact often unclear since after their turn of office officials took home documents that were important to them and mixed them up with their private correspondence and even with their private library. In government offices incoming and outgoing letters and reports were often filed by gluing them together in long rolls : these so-called tomoi synkollesimoi can be considered a form of ancient archives and will receive a place in our study.

The project intends to help the historian find his way in the labyrinth of Greek papyri by setting up sign-posts linking texts that once belonged together, by studying individual archives, by studying the background of papyrus finds and by editing some groups of texts that have remained unpublished or have been published in an unsatisfactory manner.

Our main interest goes out to three groups of archives : bilingual archives (Greek-demotic) of the Ptolemaic period; archives of the Fayum oasis, both Ptolemaic and Roman; archives from Upper Egypt (Thebes and Pathyris).

Research programme :

  1. Collection of the evidence : all known papyrus and ostraca archives are incorporated in the homepage "papyrus collections world wide" (see url). Thanks to the use of computer technology our descriptions, made up from the base of the individual texts, are linked, whenever possible, to the images of the papyri in the preserving institutions, to the online publications of the texts and to the metadata available on line in Heidelberg and Leuven.
  2. The presentation of the individual archives is standardised and refined, explaining the internal organisation of the archives and distinguishing between those texts that are central and those that are peripheric, e.g. later additions. Here the so-called museum archaeology, i.e. the acquisition data from papyrus collections, plays a key role. Texts illustrating the main characters of an archive, but not belonging to their papers, will be discussed separately.
  3. Some archives, published incompletely or without any attention to their archival nature, need a reedition. Preliminary work has already brought to the front several candidates, such as the archives in the Petrie Papyri (first published in 1900); the ostraca archive of Chemtsneus, of which only the Greek texts were thus far published; the archive of Pankrates, an officer of the military administration in the Fayum.