Archive | November 2011

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.