Literary VS Documentary Papyri

Dear steadfast, indefatigable web users,

back to the blog after an intense week full of new identifications and suggestions. A special thanks goes to all of those users that left a comment (or a question) in the Talk site during this last week: alias2,  Tejas_0,  lmct,  Mgt, sftommy, jansenniek, paratsoukli, lindanewman, mpvgl, Demon22, Ran-chan, foolover12, Noumenon, churrisstina,  dcardani, gsilsby, gud, anagnostes, bumblebee2,  pscofield, ddanbeck.

Today’s post is dedicated to the primary distinction between  Literary and Documentary papyri. Understanding this main difference will greatly benefit your transcriptions and identification skills, making you more aware of the nature of the text you are dealing with.  The entirety of papyri on Ancient Lives can be divided in two main categories: the ones which transmit literary compositions and the ones which do not.

In every papyrus collection documentary papyri constitute the great majority. They consist of private documents and official correspondence. Private papyri include wills, contracts, receipts, letters,  petitions, tax accounts and numerous other written  expressions of daily life in Graeco-Roman Egypt between 3rd century BC and 7th century AD.  Documents can be slowly or rapidly written, by professional scribes or inexperienced persons.

A text written by an inexperienced hand may contain orthographic mistakes, which often affect the readability of the text itself. It is not unusual to find cases of phonetic spellings, the scribe transcribing a word the way that it sounded when spoken. In SB V 7572, a papyrus from Philadelphia from the early 2nd century,  Thermoutas, who is greeting her mother and wishing here continued good health, makes as many as 5 spelling “mistakes” in just one line,  writing  plista cherin ke dia pantes hygenin  instead of pleista chairein kai dia pantos hygiainein.  Consider that the editors of such texts usually print the “correct” reading,  registering the misspelled rendering in a critical apparatus.

Documentary hands are often cursively written , and, consequently, not very easy to decipher. In documentary papyri we see professional scribes clearly avoiding to lift their pen until the word is complete.  Letter-joins are called ligatures.  Documentary scripts may be slanting to the right and include abbreviations of words frequently used, such as para “from”, cheirographon “in my own hand”, krithes “of barley”, grammateus “scribe”. Personal names are also commonly abbreviated.  Other extremely frequent words such as etos “year” and drachmai may be replaced by symbols in their entirety.

Literary texts, which may also show cursive or semicursive features, are mostly written in capitals.  Letters, which are not divided into words,  may be written  as though bounded between  two parallel lines determining their height. We call this quality “bilinearity”. Bilinear, slowly written  handwritings are called “book hands”. Such hands, which can be categorized  into several different styles, are usually very impersonal, and thus difficult to date on mere paleographical grounds.

I hope this has been of some help. Next time I will try to go through the different categories of literary scripts. Have a good week ! And enjoy Ancient Lives.


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One response to “Literary VS Documentary Papyri”

  1. Noumenon says :

    I am enjoying this transcribing business so much I would like to thank the citizens of Oxyrhynchus for thinking ahead and creating a recycling centre for us to investigate. Wish I’d paid more attention in class; my ancient Greek is not so much rusty as completely oxidised. The above article was interesting and useful but my biggest problem is ligatures, abbreviations, symbols and accents. I have downloaded the guides suggested on the Talk boards, but am still floundering. Any chance of the Project brainiacs posting an idiots guide? I understand that the Royal Holloway College will be publishing a lexicon of abbreviations and ligatures in Gk miniscule hands, but not until 2013. A few extra buttons on the Symbols and Accents half of the transcribing keyboard would be a help. Apart from that, you’re all doing very well…

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