Literary VS Documentary Papyri
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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.