The Buried Book: The Surprising Impact of the Folded, Spindled, and Mutilated

A panel discussion presented by the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, University of Minnesota

Thursday, April 5th, 10:00 am – 3:30 pm, Maroon & Gold Room in the McNamara Alumni Center, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus

How was the discovery of buried books surprised the experts and altered our views of key aspects of our classical and biblical heritage? On Thursday April 5, scholars working on reading and writing in the ancient world from a variety of perspectives will gather at the University of Minnesota to discuss the lasting impact of modern discoveries of literature once buried on purpose or by natural disaster on our modern understanding of Greek literature, the Bible, ancient philosophy, and the role of readers in the Roman World.

Our panel discussion will feature both local and visiting scholars. Alex Jassen, an expert in Judaism in the Second Temple period, will discuss how the discoveries at Qumran upended our understanding of Jewish Scriptures in his talk The Dead Sea Scrolls: The Bible and Its Reception. Marco Perale, a specialist in Greek poetry as illuminated by modern manuscript deliveries, will discuss Greek Literature without the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Dirk Obbink, a renowned expert in Hellenistic verse and philosophy, and Director of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project at Oxford University, will address the Villa of the Papyri found at Heculaneum, with its book rolls carbonized by the eruption of Mr. Vesuvius, in his talk The Herculaneum Library: From Literature to Archive.

The panel discussion will be moderated by Philip Sellew, a New Testament scholar with expertise in Greek and Coptic literary and historical studies. Ample time is planned for dialogue among the speakers as well as questions and comments from the audience. All interested parties are welcome – students from the U or other colleges, faculty colleagues, or members of the general public. There is no charge for attendance.



The symposium will have both morning and afternoon sessions with a break for lunch. Participants are welcome to attend either or both halves of the conference as their schedules permit. There are a variety of restaurants and cafés nearby for lunch.

10 am – Welcome

10:15 – Introduction by Philip Sellew (Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, University of Minnesota)

11:00The Dead Sea Scrolls: The Bible and Its Reception, presented by Alex Jassen (Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, University of Minnesota)

11:45-12:45 – Lunch Break

1:00Greek Literature without the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, presented by Marco Perale (Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, University of Minnesota)

1:45The Herculaneum Library: From Literature to Archive, presentation by Dirk Obbink (Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford)

2:30-3:30 – General Discussion


For schedule details and more information, please check our department website at or telephone 612-625-5353.

We hope to see you there!

At the dawn of the discipline

Papyrology is a new discipline. The first Greek papyrus from Egypt known in Europe was the so-called Charta Borgiana, a list of canal-workers for the year 193 AD in the site of Tebtynis. The papyrus, which is now housed at the National Museum in Naples, came from a wood sycamore box containing 50 papyri of unknown provenance. It was bought by an anonymous italian merchant in Giza in 1777, and donated to the Italian cardinal Stefano Borgia (from whom it takes its name).

It was not, however, until the XIX century that a few collections of papyri in Europe were formed. The core of the Collection in Turin (Museo Egizio, Egyptian Museum) was acquired in 1824 by Charles Felix of Sardinia (1765-1831), king of the reign of Piedmont-Sardinia, from the antiquarian Bernardino Drovetti (1776-1852), who was appointed by Napoleon as French consul to Egypt. It was a time when diplomats and military men were often also collectors of antiquities. Among them was Jean d’Anastasi (1780-1857), a merchant from Damascus, who became the consular representative of Sweden in Alexandria not long after Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt (1798-1801). After he came back to Europe in 1828, his collection was purchased by various libraries in Europe: the British Museum in London; the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Louvre in Paris; The Staatliche Museen in Berlin; and the Rijksmuseum in Leiden.

In 1863 the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette (1821-1881), the Director of the Conservation Service in Egypt, founded the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, later ravaged by a flood and rebuilt in 1897. The Papyrussammlung in Vienna originated in 1883 and was based on the finds made between 1877 and 1880 in the area of Fayyum by Josef von Karabacek, an art-historian and Professor of History of the Orient at the University of Vienna. The papyri were later purchased by the Archduke Joseph Rainer of Austria, who gave the name to the collection and the publication series called Corpus Papyrorum Raineri. The publication of these new acquisitions, which marks the beginning of Papyrology as a science, did not systematically start before the last two decades of the XIX century. The first volume of the Corpus Papyrorum Raineri was published in 1895 by C. Wessely, who had already been assigned the publication of a set of Leipzig papyri in 1885. The first volume of the Greek Papyri in the British Museum, by F.G. Kenyon came out in 1893, followed by the inaugural volume of the Aegyptische Urkunden aus den Königlichen (later Staatlichen) Museen zu Berlin, published in 1895. The era of Oxyrhynchus was about to arrive.

Rulers and ‘not-papyri’

In the scanning process some background material was often extracted along with the papyrus image. We are aware of this issue and we are gradually removing that material from the website, but you too can help in this process. Many of you have already contributed to the odd-one-out by marking rulers and ‘not-papyri’ with the pound character (#) in Talk. However, the easiest and most effective way for you to report the presence of irrelevant objects is to click on the ‘issue’ button, located in Transcribe on the bottom right corner of the keypad. Thank you for your collaboration!

The Match Button

The Match Button allows you to find correspondences to words in other published texts.

It encompasses two search engines, one for literary texts (“Matched Documents”) and one for documentary papyri (“Matched Letters”).

The Match button will give you an idea of the possible occurrences of a word in texts of comparable content. Match is not meant to be a research tool. It is particularly effective in cases of short sequences of letters and can help you identify words, but may not always yield exact textual correspondences.

Papyrology and Papyri

Papyrology is a compound word formed by two members, “papyrus” (ἡ πάπυρος) and “logos” (ὁ λόγος, «reason», «study», suffix –λογία «discipline»), indicating the scientific study of papyri. The English word «papyrus» is borrowed from Latin, which explains why the correct plural form of the word is «papyri» (think of the second declination), and not «papyruses» (which is recorded in dictionaries, but never used by scholars). A papyrus was manufactured from the Egyptian aquatic papyrus plant. The stem was cut along the length into strips, which were laid crossways in two layers on a flat surface and pressed together in order to form a solid sheet. The solidity of the artifact was guaranteed by the plant’s own natural juices, which served as an efficient glue between the two layers.

Sheets were subsequently glued together horizontally, forming a roll. A roll was usually written on its inner surface, where the plant fibers run horizontally and the surface is smoother. This side is conventionally called recto. The outer surface, where papyrus fibers run vertically and the surface is coarser than on the inner side, is called verso.

P.Oxy. 2200. Example of Recto/Verso

Rolls written on both sides are not uncommon. The presence of writing on the verso indicates the intentional reuse of an old exemplar, discarded and then recycled for a different purpose. The papyrus codex, which became popular in the II century, i.e. before the widespread use of parchment, was a format alternative to the roll. A codex was constituted of multiple sheets folded and bound together, like in a modern paperback.

Abbreviations and Symbols

Dear indomitable Ancient Lives warriors,

thank you for your renewed support. We are currently working on putting more images into the system by the end of the year. Technical problems still persist, but we plan on addressing these issues in conjunction with the uploading of new images. Again, we thank you for your patience in this matter. In the meantime, there are still a lot of papyri that are just waiting to be transcribed!

Today, I would like to provide you with some examples of abbreviations and symbols. Noumenon, paratsoukli, and sftommy have already discussed this topic in Talk, and realized that, unfortunately, a systematic study on abbreviations in documentary papyri is still not available. The most accessible sources of information in this respect are O. Montevecchi, La papirologia (Milan 1988, 2nd edition; it is just a list, you don’t need to read Italian!) and N. Gonis, ‘Abbreviations and Symbols’, in R. Bagnall’s Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (Oxford-New York 2009, pages 170-178). Do not feel discouraged if you cannot find the character(s) that you are looking for. Papyrology is not an exact science, our texts being subject to a number of scribal idiosincracies.

First, make sure the character you are examining is really an abbreviated form of a word, and not, say, a couple of letters in ligatures. The most common example of ligature in documentary papyri is the cursive rendering of the conjunction kai “and”, made in one movement and shaped like a letter-pair (k + ai). See below P.Oxy. LXIII 4383 line 2 Mero-/baudou to b’’ kai. Another frequent abbreviation is visible at the end of line 5, where the name of Oxyrhynchus is represented by its first four letters.

Other standard forms of abbreviation are contained in examples of private and official correspondence. In P.Oxy. LXIII 4375 line 1, a lady called Nonnas orders her assistant (boetho) Serenus to provide a certain amount of wine. Here, both the preposition para“from”, and the verb for “greet” chairein have been reduced to their first letter.

Texts such as payment orders and receipts are very likely to contain abbreviations. In P.Oxy. LXI 4123 the total amount due is expressed in line 7: see the accusative drachmas chilias “one thousand drachmas” followed by the verb gignontai “that is, makes” abbreviated into gi(), and a wavy vertical standing for drachmai: “give [him] … one thousand drachmas, total drachmai 1000” (both in numeric and written form, like in modern checks!).

P.Oxy. LXII 4348, a tax schedule from the IV century, consists of three columns of text. In column three (lines 1-5, 7, 9), you should easily recognize a symbol closely resembling a long-tailed Y: it stands for a unit of value, the talanton “talent”. In the second column two units of measure occur: the symbol for arourain lines 1, 4, 5, 7, 9 and the one for litra in lines 2 and 3, both followed by numbers.

Some of you may already have noticed the symbol for etous“on (the) year (of)” on the panel of our website containing the non-alphabetical signs. This character is generally shaped like a modern L with a prolonged horizontal stroke. It may, however, coincide with the above-mentioned symbol for drachmai, as in P.Oxy. LXXV 5053 line 1. The etous symbol may precede or follow the year number: 12 in this case, composed of the letter iota (=10) + a nice example of open-topped beta (=2).

We will try to extend and update the list of non-alphabetical signs on our Transcribe interface. In the meantime, do not hesitate to contact me for any further information. Keep up the good work, and enjoy Ancient Lives.

Subliterary Papyri

Dear strenuous Ancient Lives web users,

one of our last posts concerned the differences between Literary and Documentary Papyri in terms of both writing and content. Today’s post will illustrate a third category of texts: Subliterary Papyri. I know this term may sound a little bit over technical and pretentious, but being aware of the existence of this classification will save you time and efforts when dealing with identifications. The reason is simple: subliterary papyri are frequently not included in electronical databases. In other words, they are not searchable.

A definition of subliterary is inevitably offered by negative characteristics. Subliterary texts are neither literature nor documents. They are not excerpts from ancient books, but may be about them (in the form of annotations or direct quotations); they are not everyday life accounts from the Graeco-Roman Egypt, but may be written by ‘ordinary’ people expressing their feelings (that is the case of curses, prayers, and drawings), or providing any sort of information deriving from their professional background (medical prescriptions, horoscopes).

Let me give you a few examples.

– P.Oxy. LXV 4451. Commentary on Homer, Iliad I (I century BC). A good example of a papyrus containing Homer without actually being a Homer papyrus. Always be cautious when finding a literary quotation. Spend some time in going through each line preceding and following that specific quotation, to make sure of the real content of the main text. You can also double-check the papyrus text against that of a critical edition.

– P.Oxy. XVI 1926. A Christian Prayer (VI century AD). Lines 3-5 go: “if it is not your will that I speak about the bank or the weighing office, make me learn not to speak”. Note that subliterary papyri, just like documentary papyri, could be written in cursive scripts.1926

– P.Oxy. XIX 2222. Chronological List (Early I century AD). A succession of Ptolemaic kings, containing the regnal years and life-spans of the rulers, written by a non-literary hand. Probably a historical, certainly not a historiographical work.

– P.Oxy. LXII 4308. Mythological compendium (II century AD). A list of children of goddesses and mortal men. Compendia often do not chain events in continuous narration and move abruptly from one section to another, not reaching the level of detail and completeness of mythological treatises like the ones by Apollodorus and Hyginus.4308

– P.Oxy. 4300a. Horoscope (III century AD). “Venus in Libra”, “moon in Acquarius”. Horoscopes were a common astronomical practice in Roman Egypt. We have more than 50 examples from Oxyrhynchus.

I hope I have been of some help. For further clarifications you can contact James Brusuelas (Recipient’s name “Jbrusuel”) or myself (“Perale”) through the Ancient Lives website ( Keep up the good work!

Greek Literary Bookhands

Dear all (users, newcomers and bystanders),

When I started working on this project one month ago, I immediately realized that many of you had already successfully identified a large number of papyri from the collection. I am still going through all of your identifications and have approved many of them. Once again, the Ancient Lives Science Team would like to thank you all for your massive support in terms of transcriptions and classifications. As you could see from Chris’ last post, we recently hit 5 million clicks, which is an amazing result.

As anticipated in Literary VS Documentary Papyri, today’s post is dedicated to a classification of the most peculiar literary scripts. The following categories do not, by any means, exhaust every possible form of writing between the III century BC and the VII century AD, but can help you categorize and approximately date the papyrus you are working on.

  • Ptolemaic book-hands (IV – I century BC) resemble epigraphical scripts. Mostly bilinear (for the notion of ‘bilinearity’ see my last post “Literary VS Documentary Papyri”), these hands are lacking in serifs, shading and other forms of ornamentation. Examples: P. Berol. 9875 (Timotheos, Persians, second half of the fourth century BC); P.Oxy. LIII 3716 (Euripides, Orestes, II-I century BC: see below).
    P.Oxy. 3176
  • Roman majuscule (or Roman uncial, I-II century AD): a round, regular, bilinear hand (only phi and in some cases psi project). Its main characteristic is its uniformity: letters, with the exception of iota and sometimes rho, tend to be compressed into squares; epsilon, theta, omicron and sigma are broad circles of same diameter and size. It may contain serifs and finials. Examples: P.Hawara (mid II century AD); P.Oxy. LXIV 4410 (Comedy?, II century AD: below).
  • Biblical majuscule (or Biblical uncial, from the end of the II century onwards): a round, slowly written calligraphic hand, exhibiting a fine contrast in thickness between vertical and horizontal / ascendent lines. It derives its name from the great Biblical uncial codices of the IV and V century, the Sinaiticus, the Vaticanus, the Alexandrinus and the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus. Unlike in the Roman majuscule, rho and hupsilon often protrude below the baseline. Forms of embellishment such as finials and serifs do not generally appear. Examples: P.Oxy. LXXV 5027 (Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, III century; P.Oxy. LXII 4327 (Demosthenes, De Chersoneso, III century, below).
    P.Oxy. 4327
  • Severe style (II-III century AD): a kind of writing alternating right angles with curves, and combining letters of different sizes. Narrow letters like epsilon, theta, omicron, sigma, as well as the loop of rho, are contrasted with horizontally extended forms of my, ny, eta and tau. Letters are often sloping to the right. The general impression is of semplicity and neatness. Examples: P.Oxy. LX 4050 (Aeschines, In Ctesiphontem, II-III century, see below); P.Oxy. XXXIV 2700 (Apollonius Rhodius, III century).
    P.Oxy. 4050
  • Coptic uncial (V-VII century AD): a rounded, upright, large size script, written with a thick pen. Letters are broad and their extremities may be decorated with round dots and loops. The writing is strictly bilinear, though xi and phi may constitute exceptions. Examples: P.Oxy. XX 2258 (Callimachus, Hymns, Aitia, Miscellanea, VI-VII century, see here below); P. Rain. III 45 (Mythology, VI-VII century).
    P.Oxy. 2258

    Keep up the good work! And have a great week.


Disappearing images

You might notice that images to some of the papyri you’ve already classified have disappeared. We’ve removed them following a request from the Egypt Exploration Society, who own the Oxyrhynchus collection of papyri. I’ll be meeting them and we hope to bring the images back soon, but in the meantime don’t worry – your hard work is safe and we’re working hard to analyse the more than 5 million classifications you’ve already provided which are of immense value.

In the meantime, there are still images to be classified so keep up the good work.

Chris and the AncientLives team.

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.