by John R. Abercrombie (Expedition, Winter 1978)
"The University Museum's collection of Papyri and related Materials"
In a second century C.E. Greek epistle a well-intentioned father offers some free
advice to his son, who was probably wishing for a more tangible sort of response.
He tells his "sweetest" lad to offend no one and to give his studies
his undivided attention, for in this way a man will profit. The father then adds
that he is sending his son money, monthly supplies and clothes (University Museum
E 2805 = Oxyrhynchus 531).
An Arabic letter dating to the 8th century C.E. describes what must have been
a curious situation. A slave-owner demands his slave girl be returned at once
with "the mail." He is upset, because she fled his house at night and
entered another where she married (E 16423).
In a Hebrew letter written during the Crusades, a displaced refugee and unemployed
scholar bemoans his fate. The author laments how circumstances forced him to pawn
his wife's jewelry, his own clothes, his Bible and unbound volumes. He then traveled
to Damascus in hopes of finding employment, and later requested that his son be
allowed to visit him there. But when his wife discovered that the boy had slipped
away to visit his father, she sent a messenger who brought him back home. The
scholar, when he heard what had happened, threatened divorce (E 16516).
These three personal letters discovered in Egypt are samples of the informative
and often entertaining papyri and related written materials in the University
Museum's Egyptian collection. Many other personal, legal, administrative, literary
and religious texts are also to be found among the collection's 2000 or so
Since 1898 the Museum has acquired this written material through purchases,
excavations and gifts; however, most of it derives from two sources early
in this century. Late in the 1890's and early in the 1900's, B. P. Grenfell
and A. S. Hunt, two British archaeologists, conducted extensive excavations
for Egyptian papyri at town sites and cemeteries in Oxyrhynchus, the Fayu/m
region and Hibeh. Their work, which was undertaken in part to counter illicit
plundering of sites for papyri, produced a great volume of written materials.
Eventually, the University Museum and other interested organizations were awarded
some /~p./ of these discoveries by the British Exploration Fund in repayment
for their financial support of Grenfell's and Hunt's research.
The second source, from which more than half of the collection derives, was
the untiring effort of William Maxwell Mu%ller, noted Egyptologist and professor
at the University of Pennsylvania. Max Mu%ller became associated with the Museum
shortly after its founding and early on encouraged the Museum's Egyptiam Section
to take an active interest in the current papyri discoveries by beginning its
own collection. In 1900 Mu%ller traveled to Egypt where he purchased papyri
and other artifacts for the Museum's collection. His entertaining letters from
1900 to 1902 relate how Mu%ller was able to barter with the native dealers in
order to gain a favorable price. Even by comparison to prices of that time,
Mu%ller proved to be a shrewd buyer and acquired papyri for a pittance. Two
cigar boxes of fragments cost him 15 shillings ($3.75). From a Luxor merchant
he purchased a Hieratic magical papyrus, several Demotic contracts and other
fragments for a mere two pounds ($10.00). With the assistance of a Dr. Kern,
Mu%ller bought significant Demotic temple records, a Greek papyrus and other
fragments for 25 pounds ($125.00) or about half of what the dealer originally
Mu%ller's major acquisition came some ten years later. In the summer of 1910
Mu%ller bought the main portion of a large private collection owned by Bernard
Moritz, an Arabic paleographer in Cairo. Mu%ller originally negotiated to purchase
the whole collection for $750, but when only $500 was made available to him,
he acquired only part. This purchase from Bernard Moritz today comprises over
half of the present collection and includes materials in several different languages.
A smaller percentage of the Museum's present collection was not purchased but
was exhumed in the 1920's by Clarence Fisher, Curator of the Egyptian Section
(1914-1925). Fisher uncovered Hieratic and Hieroglyphic fragmemts at Drah Abu
Neggah, a rich Ramesside cemetery near ancient Thebes. Surprisingly, his most
important papyri find was made in the poorest tomb (No. 156, the tomb of Pennesittaui)
on the site. Here Fisher discovered Demotic legal documents dated to the early
Ptolemies (late 4th-3rd century B.C.E.) inside of two large beet shaped jars.
The documents, probably part of a family's personal records, include a lease,
marriage contract, divorce paper, promissory note, sales of part of a house,
provision for the dead and other contractual arrangements.
Over the years, several donors also have presented papyri to the Museum. One of
these gifts, the missing conclusion to one of the Hieratic Tomb Robbery papyri
(dated to the 20th Dynasty or 11th century B.C.E.) in the British Museum, is especially
These gifts, discoveries and purchases today provide the Museum with a fine
collection of ancient, medieval and early modern written material from Egypt.
The entire collection spans some three thousand years from about 1300 B.C.E. to
modern times. The bulk of the collection, however, postdates the Persian conquest
of Egypt in the 6th-5th centuries B.C.E. The Greek and Demotic materials date
mostly to the Hellenistic and early Roman periods (circa 300 B.C.E. to 300 C.E.).
The Coptic, Hebrew, Arabic and Pahlavi materials as well as some Greek pieces
were written in Byzantine times. Several Hebrew and Arabic documents are as
late as the 17th century. A few Hieratic and Hieroglyphic pieces can be ascribed
to the New Kingdom and the Third Intermediate periods (circa 1550 B.C.E. to 600
Individual items in the collection are written on three different types of material;
papyrus, leather and paper. Papyrus is the vehicle for the largest number of
written pieces prior to the 4th century C.E. It continued to be used until the
9th and 10th centuries, but was gradually replaced at first by leather (parchment
and vellum) and later by paper. Other materials such as broken pottery (ostraca),
cloth, bark or wood, stone and metal were inscribed in various periods and under
various circumstances. No systematic analysis of the Museum's collection of
these materials has as yet been attempted.
The importance of all these writings inscribed in many languages and on different
materials lies in what they reveal about the languages, history and cultures
of Egypt and /~p./ the surrounding areas. Although much of the collection remains
unedited, the Demotic, Greek and Hebrew documents so far published provide a
panorama of life in ancient and medieval times. Indeed, one is somewhat surprised
to discover how little certain aspects of life have changed through the centuries.
For example, then as now the state levied various taxes. According to tax receipts
and a tax list from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, an individual was responsible
for paying the state tax collectors ten percent sales tax, poll tax, weaving
tax, dike maintenance tax, profit tax, land tax, poor tax, temple tax, police
and defense tax, festival tax, pig tax and many other taxes. One quickly recalls
the aphorism about life's only certainties, death and taxes.
Marriage and divorce contracts are not modern legal inventions. The Museum possesses
several marriage contracts, some of which are from pre-Christian, Ptolemaic
Egypt. These Demotic contracts stipulate that a husband was responsible for
providing his future wife with shelter, food (four measures of wheat daily),
one hin (or about ??s of a pint) of oil monthly, cloth and a bride's gift (one
piece of silver). If a husband were to commit adultery and wanted a divorce,
according to the marriage contract he could divorce her as long as he paid six
pieces of silver and gave her half of what he owned.
A complex agricultural system with cash crops, governmental incentives and controls,
crop irrigation and regional distribution and storage operated in ancient times.
Before the end of the Nile's annual inundation, the state granaries lent certain
seeds to farmers for planting. The state, furthermore, controlled and restricted
what farmers could plant in any year, The major crops -- cash crops -- were
wheat (emmer) and barley, although lentils and cabbage were also grown, probably
for private consumption. At harvest, farmers then sold their produce to the
granaries and on occasion to private individuals.
Religious beliefs were strongly held. Many different religious documents are
preserved in the collection and most appear to have been written with great
care. Some are beautifully decorated, especially copies of the Egyptian Book
of the Dead with its vignettes (on display in the Upper Egyptian gallery), Christian
Biblical fragments and Muslim Quranic manuscripts. Also on display in the Biblical
Archaeology gallery is one of the earliest fragments from the New Testament,
Matthew 1 (3rd century C.E.), found in the first season of excavation at Oxyrhynchus.
Other traditional classics of literature were also read in earlier times. The
Museum's Egyptian collection includes fragments of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
(E 2818) currently on display in the Classical World (Greek gallery), Euripides'
Hecuba, Isocrates' Contra Sophistus, Demosthenes' Contra Timocratem,
Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, a fragment of a Greek grammar
by Theodosius of Alexandria, Arabic short stories and Rabbinic Hebrew treatises.
Cataloguing, mounting, identification and study of the collection have taken place
sporadically since the first acquisition. Today about half of the pieces are catalogued
individually, most of these have been mounted and some identified; however, few
have been thoroughly studied. Only an estimated ten percent of the collection
has been edited and published in any form. The Greek papyri obtained through the
British Egyptian Exploration Fund were published by the British excavators in
Oxyrhynchus Papyri I-III, Fayu/m Towns and Their Papyri and Hibeh
Papyri I. The Demotic rolls from Drah Abu Neggah have been dealt with in Mizraim
and the Museum Journal. Many of the Hebrew documents purchased by Mu%ller
were published in the Jewish Quarterly Review. Some Pahlavi fragments are
reproduced in Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum. [Levi Della Vida published
many of the Arabic pieces.] But on the whole, numerous written pieces, mostly
from Mu%ller's purchases, remain unpublished and in many instances unstudied.
In 1966 Robert Kraft of the Religious Studies Department of Penn requested and
received permission from David O'Connor, Associate Curator of the Egyptian Section,
to examine the collection. Kraft and Antonia Tripolitis, an interested graduate
student, found that numerous fragments were still stored in boxes and had not
been mounted or flattened. They began by flattening and mounting the contents
of one of the storage boxes. When it became apparent that fragments of what
was originally the same papyrus might be found in several different boxes or
might already be mounted under glass, the idea of mounting the materials immediately
after flattening was abandoned. Instead, the flattened pieces were placed in
lined folders for storage and classification until all the fragments of a document
could be located. The fragments of each document at that future date will be
mounted between glass or plexiglass.
As it became apparent to Kraft that the bulk of the collection remained inaccessible
-- indeed unknown -- to scholars and that some of the known material needed
curatorial attention, he organized a "papyri project" in 1971 under
the sponsorship of the Egyptian Section and the Religious Studies Department,
with support from both the Museum and the University "work study"
program. An immediate goal of the project was to organize the collection by
language groups, inventory each of these subcollections, and thus make the materials
more readily available for research.
Soon this initial aim will be realized, at least in part. A catalogue of the Hebrew
documents in the Museum's collection will be deposited in the Van Pelt and Museum
libraries. This catalogue contains detailed descriptions and scholarly notes,
and xerographic copies of each document. Such information will aid researchers
in determining the state of preservation and the feasibility of further study
of each document at the Museum. Similar catalogues of the relatively smaller collections
of Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic and Pahlavi pieces should follow fairly quickly.
The relatively large number of Greek, Coptic and Arabic documents will require
a much longer time to catalogue although work has already begun. Yet much remains
to be done simply in the more mechanical aspects of the project: classifying by
languages and type of writing, rejoining broken pieces, mounting and labeling.
The actual task of gathering philological and historical information from the
materials remains for future investigators.