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date: 18 September 2019

(p. xvii) Introduction

(p. xvii) Introduction

In a broad sense, papyrology is a discipline concerned with the recovery and exploitation of ancient artifacts bearing writing and of the textual material preserved on such artifacts. For the most part it focuses on what can be called the spectrum of everyday writing rather than forms of writing intended for publicity and permanence, most of which were inscribed on stone or metal and belong to epigraphy, in the scholarly division of labor. The edges of these domains, however, are fuzzy. Papyrology cannot actually be defined by the material support: Potsherds can belong to epigraphy or papyrology, depending on their origin and nature, while the great parchment codices of the fourth and fifth centuries are not usually thought of as papyrological texts. Technique of writing is not an adequate discriminant, for not all epigraphical texts are incised, and some papyrological texts are. A public/private dichotomy is undermined by papyri put up as public notices, and many types of content are found in both epigraphical and papyrological texts—edicts of Roman governors, to give only one obvious example. Nor does geography divide the fields: Both papyrological and epigraphical texts can be found from Britain to Afghanistan, although, for environmental reasons, most papyrological material comes from Egypt. Material that in Egypt would be considered papyrological finds a home in the Corpus inscriptionum iranicarum when written in a Persian language. In one sense, none of this is a problem unless one wants to close oneself into a discipline with clear boundaries. But for the editor of a handbook it poses certain challenges.

Publishing a handbook for a field such as papyrology presupposes some sense of approximate boundaries. A generation ago, “papyrology” meant Greek and Latin papyrology, and the borders were thus clear at least in linguistic terms. Neither Coptic nor Arabic papyrology had more than a handful of practitioners, and demotic Egyptian unquestionably belonged to the Egyptologists. In the summer seminar in papyrology in 1968, at which I received my first training, I think none of these languages was ever mentioned. The papyrology of the rest of the ancient world was hardly an issue, either; apart from Herculaneum, Dura-Europos, and a scattering of other texts, papyrology meant Egypt. The papyrological textbooks of that era, most notably Turner (1968, 19802) and Montevecchi (1973, 19882), are essentially and even avowedly about the Greek (and Latin, to some extent) papyri of Egypt, just as had been the case already for Mitteis and Wilcken (1912), and the same is explicitly true of Rupprecht (1994).

(p. xviii) Today, a broader concept, already partly visible long ago in Peremans and Vergote (1942), is unavoidable. One may trace the change in the Checklist of Editions, which between its first edition in 1974 and its most recent in 2001 (Oates et al. 2001) has added demotic and Coptic, and an analogous Arabic checklist has come into being (online). It seems only a matter of time before the papyri in other Semitic languages are added. Will the Bactrian documents (Sims-Williams 2000) be next? Papyrologists trained on Egyptian material have found themselves working on papyri from Petra and tablets from Vindolanda. Several volumes of one papyrological series have now been titled “From Herculaneum to Egypt ” (Papyrologica lupiensia). All of this has in some ways not so much left behind the old contest between methodological and substantive concepts of the field of papyrology as relocated them to a broader plane.

It is, however, all too easy to see these developments uncritically as the papyrological manifestations of the egalitarian, multicultural spirit of the present. No matter how fuzzy a set papyrological texts constitute, they do have a core. Greek is still the dominant language of papyrology, and the Roman empire its fulcrum. Nearly 80 percent of published papyri are Greek and Latin (mostly Greek; cf. chapter 27), texts from the period of Roman rule greatly outnumber those of the Hellenistic period, and the numbers among the unpublished may not be vastly different. The “normality” of the Roman period for papyrology is probably not just a matter of the chance of survivals, however; or, to look at it from another point of view, the survival of documents is probably not simply the product of archaeological contingency. Roman rule brought with it the development of a society of “notables,” the prosperous elites of both villages and cities who governed them—the cities especially after Septimius Severus granted them city councils. These groups, the property they owned, and the public duties they carried out generated an immense amount of paperwork, much of which had not been there in the Ptolemaic period, and these papyri are a large part of what gives us our impression of the “middle-class” (but really upper middle or lower upper class) society to which the modern middle-class reader connects so easily. It is the village societies of the Fayyum and the bourgeoisie of Oxyrhynchos that have generated most of the stories papyrologists tell about life in Graeco-Roman Egypt. Greek was the language of power and business in these societies.

The Roman Empire—in an expansive sense, including late antiquity—is also the period in which the geographical range of papyrological finds outside Egypt is at its greatest. From the first to the early second centuries there are important finds from the pre-Hadrianic forts at Vindolanda in northern Britain (Tab. Vindol. I–III), with their snapshot of frontier military life, and the fort of Masada by the Dead Sea, where, near the other end of the empire, the Roman army was engaged in putting down a rebellion (Doc.Masada). Second- and third-century documents from the Dead Sea (P.Yadin) and the Euphrates valley (P.Euphr., P.Dura) have also helped prevent too Egyptocentric a view of the papyrological world, as the interplay of (p. xix) Roman, Greek, and local languages and legal norms has given more specificity, bite, and controversy to questions all too easily buried in generalizations. The army is documented again in third-century Libya with a large find of ostraca (O.Bu Njem). Later still, Petra and Nessana give us city and village documents linked to church and military but also highly revealing about private property transactions in the sixth and seventh centuries (P.Petra, P.Ness.). Yet none of this takes away from the overwhelming numerical dominance of Egyptian texts.

This handbook reflects these changes in papyrology over the last third of a century; it also reflects the lack of any universally accepted view of the discipline to replace the consensus of the past. The Greek papyri still dominate the book, just as they do the subject. Limitations of space, differences in the developmental stages of various fields, and sometimes a lack of available contributors have made it impossible to treat all possible subjects. I particularly regret the absence of any substantial discussion of Coptic palaeography, a subject much in need of systematic treatment, and the lack of a planned chapter on hieratic and demotic papyri (although chapters 12 and 17 deal with part of that territory). Fortunately, these topics will be treated extensively in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Egyptology and Oxford Handbook of Coptic Studies. Readers should in any case recognize that any seeming incoherences of boundaries and coverage accurately reflect the nature of papyrology today in the midst of change.

The divide between the methodological and substantive sides of the discipline will also be evident. Some chapters are more practical in character, aiming to help the reader understand how papyrologists go about reading, editing, and making sense of their texts. Others give some of the results of that process. This divide too was evident in Peremans and Vergote's Handboek, which contained an entire chapter on the definition of the subject, then other chapters on writing material, conservation, and decipherment, as well as chapters on political history, language, administration, law, religion, social life, economy, culture, and private life. The balance is clearly toward the results of papyrology, perhaps not a surprising outcome in a book written by two scholars who were not editors of papyri. If the present handbook attempted to cover the full range of these subjects, it would have required at least two volumes (if it could have been produced at all). It has no sections on class, ethnicity, economy, trade, gender, family, Hellenization, Romanization, and many other subjects on which a great deal of good work has been done in recent decades. Space has been used instead to widen the linguistic range and break “religion” out into more of its varied constituents. This was hardly an inevitable choice, but it seemed to me more important to cover papyrology's development into those directions, even if incompletely, than to try to provide a history of Egypt (let alone the entire ancient world) through the lens of the papyri.

As a collective work, this handbook has of necessity a different character from previous handbooks or textbooks of papyrology. The twenty-seven authors represented here and their subjects overlap from time to time, and they do not agree (p. xx) about everything. Although some repetition has been excised, some remains, and contention remains, too. There would be no point in pretending that all of the authors speak with the same voice. One of the purposes of a multiauthor volume of this kind, in fact, is to give the reader a sense of the debates that animate the field. Moreover, different authors have different conceptions of their audience; that again seems to me inevitable in such a work and perhaps even desirable. Most of the chapters require no knowledge of any ancient language, but it was hard to imagine a chapter on the Greek and Latin of the papyri addressed to an audience that knew nothing of either language.

Handbooks tend to be consulted or read in part rather than continuously. Many different arrangements of the chapters could have been envisaged, naturally; the one adopted here made sense to me, but nothing prevents readers from reading chapters in any order they find helpful.

This is certainly the first papyrological handbook in which electronic research tools play a significant part. There are few chapters not marked in one way or another by the availability of major resources in digital form, mainly on the World Wide Web but some still only on CD-ROM. The authors have somewhat diverse things to say about this revolution, and I have thought that here particularly some repetition was a good thing. The addresses of these tools are given above (pages xv–xvi), where the reader will find all of these resources listed with information on access to them.

This book has benefited from the help of many individuals. I want to acknowledge particularly the valuable comments of the participants in the Summer Seminar in Papyrology held at Columbia University in 2006, who had drafts of the volume available to them. Eduard Iricinschi, of Princeton University, read the entire copyedited volume and improved it in many particulars, a service for which I am deeply grateful. The financial support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World of New York University has made possible the seminar and this editorial work.


Editions of papyri and papyrological reference works are cited throughout this volume according to the abbreviations in Oates et al. (2001) or its electronic version.

Mitteis, L., and U. Wilcken. 1912. Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde. 4 vols. Berlin.

Montevecchi, O. 1988. La papirologia, 2d ed. Milan: Vita e pensiero.

Oates, J. F., R. S. Bagnall, S. J. Clackson, A. A. OʼBrien, J. D. Sosin, T. G. Wilfong, and K. A. Worp. 2001. Checklist of Editions of Greek, Latin, Demotic, and Coptic Papyri, Ostraca, (p. xxi) and Tablets, 5th ed. Oakville, Conn.: American Society of Papyrologists. For up-to-date electronic version, see p. xv.

Peremans, W., and J. Vergote. 1942. Papyrologisch Handboek. Leuven: Beheer van Philologische Studiën.

Pestman, P. W. 1990. The New Papyrological Primer. Leiden: Brill.

Rupprecht, H.-A. 1994. Kleine Einführung in die Papyruskunde. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Sijpesteijn, P. M., and L. Sundelin, eds. 2004. Papyrology and the History of Early Islamic Egypt. Leiden: Brill.

Sims-Williams, N. 2000. Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan. Vol. 1: Legal and Economic Documents. Studies in the Khalili Collection; vol. 3: Corpus inscriptionum iranicarum, II.6. Oxford: Nour Foundation.

Turner, E. G. Greek Papyri: An Introduction, 2d ed. 1980. Oxford: Clarendon Press.