by Katherine Blouin and Rachel Mairs
What’s the use of papyri beyond the specialized fields of papyrology, Classics, and academia? What do papyri say about the (non) human, about land, death, love, imperialism, stories, diseases, time, songs, place, space? What do they say about Antiquity? And about modernity? What is their relationship, as texts and artefacts, with power? Why do they matter today? And what are the most constructive ways for papyrologists to cope with the answers to these questions, both in and outside the classroom?
This post aims at providing some evidence on the reach of papyrological work beyond academia and at offering examples of pedagogical strategies that have, in our experience, proven fruitful. We thus hope to open the floor to more direct – and abundant – engagement between papyrologists and the world beyond the “fiber tower”.
If we really did all live in a papyrus tower, we’d like it to be this one.
From the onset, we ought to be clear about our conception of papyrology.
There are commonly two main definitions of what qualifies as a “papyrologist”. According to the first definition, papyrology is a sub-discipline of Classics and, accordingly, papyrologists are philologists who decipher and produce critical editions of ancient handwritten texts (it generally excludes graffiti though, because they tend to be included within the sub-discipline of epigraphy). This technical and linguistically focused conception of the discipline generally comes with two main sets of assumptions:
- First, papyri written in other ancient scripts (Egyptian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic) belong more appropriately to other disciplines such as Egyptology, ‘Oriental’ studies, Biblical studies or Islamic studies, and the same goes for texts written before the Hellenistic period (such as hieratic papyri for instance).
- Second, Classical philologists (compared to historians and archaeologists, a great number of whom also work on/with papyri) are the only “true” papyrologists because they know ancient Greek and Latin “the best” (to quote what a senior papyrologist told us once during a conference coffee break). Such discourses tie in, obviously, to the hierarchized, compartmentalized conception of the sub-fields of Classics, which has recently been the object of a SCS post by Sarah Bond.
This brings us to the second definition, which is more encompassing and inclusive, and which considers to be a papyrologist anyone whose research – whether it involves edition or not – includes a focus on papyri, ostraca, wax tablets, and the other non-permanent supports used in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. Language, script, place of origin, and dating do not matter. It won’t come as a surprise to the readers of this blog that we adhere to the second definition.
Yet while the second definition is becoming more and more widespread, the first definition is still commonly – if not at times passionately – advocated within the field. It is also historically rooted. Thus, to this day, the welcome page of the Association Internationale des Papyrologues defines papyrology in those terms:
“In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. From then on and for nearly a millennium, the country, while retaining its own traditions, belonged to the Greek world. It came to be under Ptolemaic, then Roman, then Byzantine administration. The International Association of Papyrologists (AIP), which originated in a meeting hold in Brussels in 1930, attempts to link together all who are interested in Graeco-Roman Egypt, in particular in the thousands of Greek texts that the climate of the Nile valley has preserved up to now. The ultimate rule for the Association is the amicitia papyrologorum.The AIP is member of the International Federation of the Societies of Classical Studies (FIEC).”
While this preliminary discussion over the definition of the discipline might appear tangential at first sight, it is far from the case inasmuch as such debates do articulate the existential issue papyrology – like Classics and Egyptology – faces. Therein lies, we hope, a silver lining – the way forward.
To put it candidly: The Humanities are currently under assault pretty much everywhere, including within the main centers of papyrological knowledge-production in continental Europe, the UK, and the USA. In the case of papyrology, the situation is even more critical, for its liminal standing between other, more “mainstream” (for better or worse) fields of Classics, archaeology and Egyptology also implies that its relevance and appeal generally remain obscure to most scholars and donors, let alone the wider world. Concomitantly, recent papyrological news have shown how ethically and scholarly devastating for the field cuts to public funding can be. The same goes when the voids created by such cuts and the traditional paucity of public-facing scholarship in the field are filled, and capitalized upon, by religiously- or politically-motivated donors. In this context, papyrology is at a crossroads: Should it not open up its epistemological and disciplinary windows, should it not make a more proactive effort to meaningfully and “accessibly” engage with people beyond the graduate classroom or niche conferences and journals, it faces the risk of becoming a myopic, enclosed, overspecialized, disconnected field that, through its own (lack of) actions, will eventually die of self-inflicted asphyxia. And that would be an utter shame.
We are not writing this post out of romantic longings for disciplinary drama, nor are we (hopefully) playing Cassandra. And our reflection on these pressing issues is not aimed at hiding a lack of specialized competence in “real research” either (please!). First, public-facing scholarship is scholarship, and it ought to be more broadly recognized, and valued, as such. Second, it is because we know the field from within, with all its richness, potential, and also its occlusions and flaws, that we are so passionate about building bridges and starting conversations. In the long run, the survival of papyrology depends on the widening of its reach inside and outside of academia, and on the well overdue processes of self-examination and diversification of voices that come with it. It is with these considerations in mind that we propose the following musings.
Papyrology and the news
We have gathered samples of online media sites whose title or text contained the word “papyrus” (singular or plural). The search was done on Google using a selection of language choices in the early summer 2019: English, Arabic, French, Italian, German, Spanish and modern Greek. The news we were able to pull cover a period ranging from 2015 to 2019. Our search is not exhaustive. Rather, it aims at highlighting general, and also regional, trends.
As could be expected, papyri – and papyrologists – do not tend to make the news as much as other Antiquity-related fields like Classics, Egyptology, or (geo)archaeology. Yet it appears that some stories did make the news quite a bit, and the coverage is abundant enough for some local trends to be observed.
Overall, online coverage of papyri-related stories focuses on 4 main themes :
- Antiquities market (looting, illegal trade, ethics, forgery)
- Discoveries (during excavations or in collections)
- Research projects (edition, imagery, papyri exhibits)
- Art (exhibition, papyrus making)
Unsurprisingly, stories involving Judeo-Christian (Qumran scrolls, the ‘Jesus’ wife’ fragment, and the Green collection/Museum of the Bible fragments) and literary papyri (mostly the Herculaneum ones and the Artemidoros papyrus) are by far the most covered ones. This is especially the case when they also involve controversy – (possible) forgery; unprovenanced origin; illegal acquisition/sale; links with looting – and new technological experiments (Herculaneum papyri). This phenomenon is paralleled on social media as well, as recent twitter threads dedicated to the so-called “First-Century Mark” fragment. See for instance Candida Moss’ recent Twitter thread and its update, and Roberta Mazza’s pioneering work, which will be featured below.
The following, relatively recent stories have attracted (by far) the most coverage:
- The Artemidoros papyrus (this story “broke” before 2015, but some later developments made the news at a later date, including this year)
- The Museum of the Bible saga, including the very recent “Gospel of Mark” fragment saga
- New technological advances to help virtually unroll and read the Herculaneum papyri
- The Red Sea Papyri
Source: The Atlantic
Some regional, linguistic variations:
In general, if one excludes the case of the Artemidoros papyrus (which was recently the focus of a RAI investigative report), questions related to the ethics of papyrology – including looting, the (il)legal Antiquities trade and forgery – tend to be more prominently covered in English publications (and also, though to a lesser extent, in Arabic). This phenomenon seems to be amplified by three intersecting factors: the anglo-saxon world hosts a thriving communitiy of Biblical (including self-defined Christian) scholars as well as a seizable proportion of experts in matters dealing with ethics, the Antiquities trade, and forgery; London is one of the world’s main hubs for the (both legal and illegal) Antiquities trade; the Green collection and Museum of the Bible are located in the USA.
Source: Egypt Today
Source: Euronews arabic
Not all news are covered in all languages. This is the case of the local craft of papyrus making in the deltaic village of Qaramus, which has only been featured in Arabic websites.
Likewise, while recent posts on the Derveni papyri appear only in Greek websites (with an emphasis on their “Europeaness”), one notices that the recent judiciary verdict regarding the “fakeness” of the Artemidoros papyrus has only been conveyed so far by Italian media.
Some research projects or exhibitions have led to publications in regional or local media. These features are justified either by “new” discoveries – through deciphering, technological experiments, or archival work – as well as by the socio-cultural impact of a newly funded project. We also notes a few features on particular (types of) texts, especially Christian, erotic, and magical ones. Here is a selection of recent such initiatives that made it on the Web:
Source: bbc news arabic
Source: France Inter
Source: The Jordan Times
Source: der Standard
Now what is not spoken about in these news? Well, most of topics papyrologists actually think, work, and teach about! While there is obviously a limit to what we can hope public-facing media and scholarship to cover, we like to think the overall picture could be balanced out, and enriched. How so? This is where public-facing scholarship can play a key, and transformative, role.
Papyrology in the Classroom
While we might not agree with all of our colleagues within the field of papyrology, all of the time, we are all about the amicitia. (Some of our best friends are papyrologists…) We look forward to the triennial International Congress of Papyrologists more than the Olympics, and nearly as much as Eurovision.
The amicitia is a potentially powerful trope to use in teaching. It helps students understand how the world of scholarship has to work as a collaborative, international community. It sets good examples for graduate scholars embarking on their own careers of how to be a good colleague, and how important it is to move beyond your own institution, country and language.
That said, papyrology is not an accessible discipline for students, even those who have already chosen to specialise in ancient languages. The idea of an amicable international scholarly community, from the outside, can look like an elite clique. How can we, as teachers, open the way to new papyrologists, and bring a little bit of papyrology into the lives of students who will never specialise in it?
There are certain basic challenges. Language is the most fundamental – not just ancient languages, but international languages of scholarship. Then there are challenges of time and resources. It takes time and patience to teach palaeography, and students need access to papyri themselves – even though high resolution online images are, for beginners, a reasonable proxy. The reality is that most of us with university jobs are teaching large groups of students, in lecture slots of one or two hours per week. Because Latin and Greek are now less frequently taught in schools in most countries – and because languages like Egyptian, Aramaic or Pahlavi are taught only in specialist university programmes – the reality is also that we cannot expect undergraduates to have a high degree of exposure to the languages of the papyri. There are also financial realities: an education is increasingly expensive in many countries, and our students are working part-time jobs and worrying about their student debt.
In a perfect world, young people would go off to a compulsory National Service-style papyrology bootcamp every summer and would have the leisure and support to become as multilingual as the inhabitants of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. University teachers would also have the time and funding to run specialist papyrology courses for several hours a week during the academic year, without staff pressure to cover essential ‘core’ teaching (fifth-century Athens; imperial Rome) at the expense of optional modules. We’re not in a position to make that happen, but we can share some suggestions for how to introduce the papyri into wider scholarly curricula.
In this, we aim to:
- Acknowledge the specialist skills required to work with the papyri, while explaining how these are acquired and deployed, in an accessible manner.
- Show how the papyrological record is invaluable for writing ancient social and economic history.
- Showcase the many things we can do with papyri that we cannot do with other ancient sources.
- Correct assumptions which students may have gleaned from the media.
I The Twins’ Tale
This dramatised documentary about the twins Thaues and Taous, priestesses at the Memphis Serapeum in the mid-second century BC, is based on documents from UPZ I. It was broadcast by Channel 4 in the UK in 2003 and is available on Youtube. It was filmed in Egypt and Morocco, and the actors are mostly speaking Moroccan Arabic.
Students can be given a dossier of translated texts relating to the twins to read while they watch the documentary. Several relevant documents can be found in Jane Rowlandson’s Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook; Naphthali Lewis’s Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt; and – for the Old School – George Milligan’s 1910 Selections from the Greek Papyri, which is free online and also has the Greek. The case of the twins is extensively discussed by Dorothy J. Thompson in Memphis under the Ptolemies and John D. Ray in Reflections of Osiris. It’s also good to get students to read a bit of Herodotos and Strabo on the Apis bull cult, and have a look at some archaeology (or holiday snaps of Saqqara).
This story has everything: lust, betrayal, a wicked mother, social climbing, ethnic conflict and animal gods. The documents concerned include everything from a official petition to the king and queen (UPZ I 19), to a dream narrative (UPZ I 78). The range of potential topics for class discussion is therefore vast.
One good assignment is to get students to write a review of the documentary, on the basis of their knowledge of the papyri on which it is based. What did the programme makers change and what did they keep the same? Why might they have made the decisions they did? Do they do a good job of explaining the ethnic and linguistic landscape of Ptolemaic Egypt? Most importantly, how do the papyri allow us to tell stories like this, where other forms of evidence do not?
II People and Papyri at Oxyrhynchus
The previous exercise focuses on the contents of the papyri, as tools for writing ancient history. This one tries to get students to think about the processes of excavating and conserving papyri, and the modern historical contexts in which these have taken place. But let us open with a shout-out to Peter Parsons’ City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, which is an utterly fabulous, student-friendly introduction to Oxyrhynchus, its papyri, and all the amazing things we can glean from them. It’s a great thing to recommend to students to buy, because they will get so much out of it, and because it can be found very cheaply.
There are lots of potential ways to get behind the news stories, to help students understand the incredible historical resource that it the Oxyrhynchus corpus. Here, we have chosen to focus on humanising the narrative of the discovery and publication of the Oxyrhynchus papyri. What was it like for the Egyptians and foreigners who dug these papyri out of the ground over a hundred years ago? How did they figure out how to preserve and transport these fragile items? What have papyrologists learnt from these experiences?
The online exhibition Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts is packed with information and photographs of Grenfell and Hunt’s excavations at the site, as well as extracts from letters and shopping lists. As well as the famous picture of Grenfell and Hunt outside their tent in 1896…
…you can find photos of the Egyptian workforce who did the actual digging:
This is a great way to start a conversation with students about the colonial context in which these excavations took place, as well as the role of Egyptian workers and archaeologists on archaeological projects across the longue durée. Stephen Quirke’s Hidden Hands: Egyptian Workforces in Petrie Excavation Archives is recommended for those who want to explore this topic further.
Now it’s time to get out your trusty copy of City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish and look at Hunt’s account of how he and Grenfell improvised papyrus conservation in the field:
I use no boards, blotting paper, leaden weights, relaxing boxes, etc: my implements are:
1. Any table of convenient size, the surface of which will not be spoilt by damp;
4. A rather blunt pen-knife;
5. Good sized sheets of paper …
The cloths are dipped in cold water and then wrung out, so that they are left fairly moist. They are then spread out on the table, and the papyri to be flattened or unrolled (after surface dirt has been brushed off so far as possible) are placed between them.
After a few minutes the flattening or unrolling process can be started, and is proceeded with as the papyrus absorbs moisture enough to become soft. It should not be allowed to get really wet.
For smoothing the papyrus, there is nothing like the human thumb.
Students may think of papyri – if they think of them at all – as precious objects in a museum case. They are often surprised at the sheer quantity excavated, and how conditions in the field necessitated less-than-ideal methods of cleaning, unrolling and storage. For an insight into conservation techniques, and how these are still being refined, it’s useful to then take a look at Leyla Lau-Lamb’s video The Art of Conservation, from the University of Michigan collection. She discussed historical techniques, and how these were developed by pioneers like Grenfell and Hunt, as well as best practice today.
Papyrologists are people too, and it can be good to remind students that the names on their bibliographies are real live human beings. There are some great interviews from an event on the Oxyrhynchus papyri organised by the Hellenic Society in 2012 on Youtube, featuring Dominic Rathbone, Colin Adams, Peter Parsons and Nick Lowe.
We think that material and exercises like these can be shoehorned into a wide range of university courses on the ancient world, and are a good way of getting papyrology out there to wider audiences. We conclude with some recommendations of blogs, which can be enjoyed by everyone from seasoned papyrologists to those completely new to the field.
Papyri-friendly blogs: Changing the narrative
Following a broader trend within Antiquity-related disciplines, an increasing number of papyrologists are opting for public-facing scholarship, be it through blogs, podcasts, or on social media. Through their work, these scholars not only complement – and also balance and complicate – the content offered to non-specialists by non-specialized media and entertainment, but they also offer much welcome pedagogical tools, which we have happily been using in our (under)graduate classrooms. Here is a selection of papyri-related blogs:
Faces and Voices: People, Artefacts, Ancient History: Roberta Mazza is one of Papyrology’s veteran bloggers. She started her blog in 2012 to revive the Rylands collection and flag papyrology as an important part of the University. The blog became important from February 2014 in the wake of the new ‘Sappho fragments’ and of the Green Papyri stories (her coverage of these two sagas makes for wonderful pedagogical material). We love Roberta. Her work is stellar. She is a fierce gem. So if you haven’t read her blog yet, do so asap. You’re welcome.
Classics in Arabic: Usama Ali Gad’s blog started in 2014. As he states on the welcome page:
“The blog aggregates news about publications, activities, etc. related to Arabic scholarship in the field of classics and thus seeks to provide greater access to non-Arabic scholars. The news comes mainly from Egypt without excluding other Arabic countries. It aims also at directing the attention of my colleagues to relevant classics materials from an Arabic context, whether this is Graeco-Arabicum or Arabico-Latinum.”
The importance of Usama’s blog cannot be overstated. By publishing most of his posts in English, he’s been shining light on a wonderful array of Arabic Classical scholarship that would otherwise have been completely ignored by almost everyone working in the fields of Classics and Papyrology outside the Arabic-speaking world. Now thanks to his blog, one doesn’t have as much of an easy excuse to do so.
Brice C. Jones’ blog: Brice C. Jones is, with Roberta Mazza, a pioneering figure of public-facing papyrology. As he graciously told us via email:
“I started blogging about papyrology back in 2011. I ran a (now defunct) blog titled The Quaternion, but I created the new site several years later. I really created the blog to bring papyrology to the everyday reader and to provide online resources. Some of my stuff is technical, but for many of my posts, they are fun, lively and easy to understand without our typical academic jargon. Papyrology has been a discipline whose conversations, for the most part, have stayed in the ‘ivory tower’. As academics, why not bring our very interesting discipline – full of wonderful stories from the papyri – into the public light? That was really my intention.”
We say Amen to this! And special mention goes to his ability to write posts that are all at once catchily-titled AND fascinating. Think, for instance, of his 2015 “Toilet Papyrus”: A Papyrus of Homer Used as Toilet Paper”, Porn on an Ancient Papyrus, and A Christian Monk, a Deacon, a Cow, and an Assault in the Wheat Fields in 324 C.E.
Markers of Authenticity: Started in March 2016, this excellent, topical blog is run by Malcolm Choat, Rachel Yuen-Collingridge and Lauren Dundler. As they put it themselves, the blog aims to explore a series of crucial questions:
“How do we confidently access and understand the past, and assimilate it into our present? On what basis do we trust our observations of, or what we are told about, the past and the world around us? What are the markers of authenticity, and to whom do we accord the authority to determine and tell us about them?”
The blog tackles several themes and issues that related directly to papyri. It is particularly the case of ethics, forgery, scribal practices, as well as cultural heritage and provenance, which have become increasingly central topics of discussion within and beyond Papyrology and Classics over the past years.
Variant Readings: Brent Nongbri’s blog, which started in 2017 has a particular focus on ancient Christian manuscripts. Through his blog, which is a complement to his recent book, he wants “to tell some of these stories and to comment on other news related to archaeology and religion”. He’s been writing quite a bit recently on the Green papyri collection “saga”, but the blog covers a broader array of topics at the intersection of ethics, papyrology, and the history of archaeology:
“The blog has since [its launch] become kind of an odd mix of posts that might be divided into four types: 1) those that amass and organize resources (such as this regularly updated post on the “P.Bodmer” series), which provides links to online bibliography and images for scholars and interested laypeople; 2) those that are, I guess, a type of investigative journalism, such as the posts that try to connect the dots with things like the Green Collection unprovenanced artifacts ; 3) those that try to explain current stories and provide further context, like the series of posts on the sorting of the Oxyrhynchus collection; 4) those that pose questions about the disciplines of papyrology, early Christianity, etc.”
Papyrus Stories: Jenny Cromwell’s blog started in May 2018. So far, its numerous posts featuring documents written in many languages and scripts (Ancient Egyptian, Demotic, Coptic, Akkadian, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic) have gathered more than 25,000 views. We particularly like the way Papyrus Stories takes down the barrier between tablets (which, apart from wax or wooden ones, are generally not considered to be “papyrological” support) and papyri/ostraca. We also love the accessible format of each post, as well as the lists of readings and the way the blog is very welcoming of guest bloggers. Makes for perfect class material. As Jenny wrote to us:
“It was something I’d been thinking about for a while – making our discipline wider reaching and making texts that I think are interesting accessible to a wide audience. I don’t think there should be barriers or that we should gate-keep history and texts – it should be made accessible for everybody!”
Coptic Magical Papyri: This blog started in December 2018. It is the public-facing face of “The Coptic Magical Papyri: Vernacular Religion in Late Roman and Early Islamic Egypt, a five-year research project (2018-2023) based at the Chair of Egyptology of the Julius Maximilian University Würzburg and funded by the Excellent Ideas programme. The team consists of Korshi Dosoo (research group leader), Edward O. D. Love, and Markéta Preininger Svobodová.” When asked about the impetus behind this blog, Korshi Dosoo responded:
“I think it was important to all three of us on the team that we tried to communicate our research with the public in general. I’d also noticed that there had been a fair bit of interest in popular science articles on coptic papyri, but that they were often sensationalistic and decontextualized, so we wanted to try to provide accessible articles which would be a bit more rigorous and we also wanted to allow people to follow the progress of the project, which is why we occasionally talk about what stage our research is at, and why we’re blogging about conferences just now.”
We love the multidisciplinary approach fostered by the authors of the blog – and notably their use of anthropological theory and scholarship. Keep the posts coming!
Papy-tweet: Twitter as a repository of (micro) public-scholarship
Both “quirky” texts written on papyri and the ones that sounds very relatable to contemporary audiences can be leitmotiv for tweets of threads. In our experience, such texts can make for successful pieces of “micro” public scholarship that can simultaneously lead to academic-level conversations and disseminate ancient texts, and scholarship, as well as publicize andamplify events, that normally don’t make it to the general public. Here are a few recent such examples:
We should finally acknowledge the popular reception of papyri, in art, food, technology, and…(infamous) font:
Source: CBS news
With such inspirational tweets, blogs and resources in mind, let us all run towards our syllabi and give them a fresh papy-look!