“Imaging the Papyri Collection at the University of Pennsylvania Museum”


by Robert A. Kraft, Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania

Geneva Papyrology Report, August 2010 (Friday morning, 20 Aug “42a”)

 

Almost exactly 100 years ago the bulk of the papyri collection at the University of Pennsylvania Museum was acquired by purchase in Egypt. A smaller number of other papyri were already in hand or promised from the supported excavations by Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus, Hibeh and the Fayum, and subsequently some papyri also were acquired through Museum excavations at Dra’ Abu el-Neggah (Fisher, 1921-23), Abu Nur (Meydum/Meidum [IMAGE], Alan Rowe, 1929-32), and through contributions from private collections [see Abercrombie’s 1980 History]. While photographs of some items were made over the years, and a few published [09-516-all.jpg], the bulk of the collection had never been imaged in any format or even catalogued except in a rather rudimentary card inventory [IMAGE]. Sometimes a single Museum card number with a simple general description represents multiple fragments, usually no more than ten or twenty, but occasionally as many as 200 or more [eg the following panels, from 16695-2]. Lack of consistent conservation efforts over the decades also means that there are sometimes layers of papyri needing separation to reveal further fragments. 

 

I first began working with the collection soon after I came to the University almost 50 years ago, and was able to do some rudimentary work on it with a small team of undergraduate students in the 1970s, [16695-1] but other University commitments along with lack of funding curtailed those efforts before much of lasting significance could occur. It had long been my hope to return to this project in retirement [16695-3], and by a stroke of good fortune, I was relocated to a small office in the Museum when I had to relinquish my Religious Studies departmental office to my successor in 2008. My presence in the Museum facilitated access to the collection, and I received permission to make digital images of everything [tin box & cartonnage], using my own time and camera under the supervision of the Egyptology staff at the Museum. About 450 items had already been digitized and put online by arrangements with the University library [IMAGE], and some of those were described and submitted for inclusion in the APIS data bank (129 items), but due to a number of circumstances, that process had bogged down, so I suspended my other papyrological pursuits and proceeded with the digitization opportunity from that point.

 

Unfortunately, this meant that the APIS-related work on the University's papyri materials had to be postponed. Now that the imaging of the Museum materials is virtually completed, it will be possible to return to the tasks of creating physical descriptions and supplying images from these collections for APIS and its associated online projects [papyry.info].

 

The majority of items in the Museum collection are in Greek [over 700] and/or Coptic [c 600], including some literary materials but mostly documentary. By my rough count, there are about 1900 total items, plus hundreds of very small scraps. Latin is represented by only one piece, on parchment, while  Arabic (mostly published by DellaVida) and Demotic items (a few published by Reich) are more numerous [c 200 each]. There is also a smattering of Pahlavi/Pahlevi scraps (mostly published by de Menasce and Wever) and a few in Hebrew. On the pictographic Egyptian side, Hieratic and Hieroglyphic are well represented [c 60 texts], and come mainly from the Museum’s own archaeological expeditions. Since the Egyptology section of the Museum controls the collection and wishes to reserve access to any of these unpublished older materials for its staff and students, I was asked not to make those images available online with the other language materials. This part of the collection is especially challenging, since it includes reconstructing three dimensional cartonnage shapes [IMAGE] and pictures as well as text. Hopefully persons who know the languages and the iconography can be enlisted to work with these para-textual materials as well [especially Book of the Dead images; see further below].

 

Imaging Detail – camera, resolution, light table: -- Most of the materials that had been mounted between mylar sheets had already been scanned by the library [16542a]. Because of the condition of most of the remaining fragments -- unmounted, loose in envelopes or folders or other containers, sometimes not even flattened [15775] -- it was impractical to try to use flatbed scanning to digitize them. Since I own a 7.1 megapixel digital camera with a 10x optical zoom and macro settings capable of producing 3.5 MB JPG images (3072 x 2304 pixels), I used it. I also was able to use a tripod and light table available in the Museum papyri room.

 

PhotoShop Manipulation – camera distortion, resolution inconsistency: -- It took me awhile to realize that the first thing I needed to do when I loaded the resulting images into the PhotoShop program was to eliminate the camera distortion [16540] of about 7%. Thus my earliest images are slightly distorted, which could become a factor at later stages of the project [resolved]. I also learned over time to try to keep the focal distance consistent, and thus not change the relative resolution of each image. When it comes to attempting to match fragments found in images taken at different times and with different focal distances, it will be necessary first to regularize the resolution by using the centimeter rulers in each image to adjust sizes [12937 IMAGE]. To facilitate comparison of fragments, I also created images (using Adobe PhotoShop) in which both sides of the fragment can be viewed together [another example]. A major piece of evidence in attempting to verify suspected joins is the fiber patterns of the papyrus, front and back.

 

Classifying by Language and Type: – With the major imaging completed, I've started to try to sort out various types of material in order to facilitate fragment matching. The codex format enables easy identification of Coptic literary hands and also Arabic Qur'an fragments. As expected, the collection contains all sorts of documentary examples, some with writing on both sides, others inscribed on only one side, including some attractive Ptolemaic Greek pieces as well as many Byzantine Greek or Coptic and Arabic from the same general period. Some pieces containing two languages also occur (Demotic-Greek (16341), Greek-Coptic, Coptic-Arabic, Arabic-Greek). There also is a smattering of what appears to be pseudo-writing, along with the otherwise "unidentified" or indistinct hands. With the smaller fragments especially, distinguishing Greek from Coptic is often impossible due to lack of sufficient context. There are also many fragments blank on both sides. Most of the fragments seems to have originated as short scrolls or single sheets, but there also are a few for which multiple pieces in a larger format are represented (e.g. several columns of the P.Oxy 16 + 696 scroll of Thucydides (02814 + 02747), a Coptic Psalter paper codex, a Coptic Gospel of John papyrus codex)

 

Organizing the Pieces: – One of the next steps will be to attempt to group similar materials in each language by direction of writing relative to papyrus fibers, whether writing appears on both or only one side, paleographical characteristics, and the like. For those of us who enjoy jigsaw puzzles, this is similarly challenging. Designs and pictures also need to be reassembled [16695-4-design] from the fragments, sometimes with the help of "outside" examples as here [16723 composite]. At that point we should finally have a better idea of how many documents are represented by the hundreds of pieces, and what their respective significance might be. Help with these papyri is invited from any source.