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  • Papyrology:Minding Other People's Business
  • Ann Ellis Hanson

Papyrologists have been celebrating anniversaries during the last decade of the 20th century, beginning with the bicentenary of the publication of the first documentary text, the so-called Carta Borgiana (a merchant's gift for Cardinal Stefano Borgia's curio cabinet in Velletri), published in 1788 by the Danish Hellenist Niels Iversen Schow. The roll proved to be a 12 1/2-column account of compulsory work on the dikes in the vicinity of Socnopaiu Nesus during A.D. 192 (SB I 5124).1 The carbonized papyrus rolls from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum also offered dates for commemoration, from their recovery by Bourbon excavators between 1752 and 1754, the publication of the Collectiones prior et altera (Herculanensium voluminum) between 1793 (de Musica) and 1876, and the cluster of editions by Alfred Körte, Hans von Arnim, Siegfried Sudhaus, and Hermann Diels at the end of the 19th century—work that continues now with the Philodemus project, based on new understandings of how rolls were cut apart during earlier attempts to unroll them.2 Most commemorations, however, have been centenaries of the initiation of series: that of the Berliner griechische Urkunden, or BGU (a series that continues with 17 published volumes and 2,759 texts), the first fascicle of which appeared in 1892, as Ulrich Wilcken and his collaborators began to edit texts from the Fayum (the ancient Arsinoite nome, a rich agricultural oasis to the south of Cairo) that had been arriving in Berlin;3 and that of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the first volume of which appeared in 1898 (and continues with 66 published volumes and 4,544 texts), the first fruits of Bernard Pyne Grenfell's and Arthur [End Page 297-] Stanley Hunt's six seasons of excavations at the site of Oxyrhynchus (El-Bahnasa) between 1897 and 1906.4

While the centenaries mark the beginnings of papyrology as an academic discipline, there were papyrologists before the name was coined and sporadic publication of texts—Amadeo Peyron in Turin (1827), Conrad Leemans in Leiden (1843), Antoine-Jean Letronne in Paris (1865).5 Nineteenth-century Europe had been gripped by Egyptomania in the wake of the Anglo-French conflicts of the Napoleonic era and the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian language, thanks to the discovery the Rosetta stone with its hieroglyphs juxta-posed to Demotic and Greek. This passion for things Egyptian gave considerable impetus to the developing antiquities markets of Cairo and Alexandria. Travelers, merchants, and diplomats found ready markets for what they brought back with them to the Continent, as museums and libraries of European cities became increasingly eager to enlarge their Egyptian holdings. By the 1870s papyri had become important items in the antiquities markets, and vast quantities, mostly at first from the Fayum, in a number of languages (Greek, Latin, Coptic, Hebrew, Syriac, Persian, and Arabic), were being offered for sale. German, French, and English diplomats and gentlemen vied with one another, only to have the Austrian Theodor Graf purchase the lion's share for the collection of the Archduke Ranier in Vienna. The interest shown by the buyers of papyri, as well as art objects, spurred the local diggers and middlemen to satisfy heightened demands for what was preserved in ancient rubbish heaps, cemeteries, and long-abandoned houses and churches. Royal and state academies, universities, and papyrological societies all over the Continent and in England fostered the acquisition of rolls and codices, wooden tablets and ostraca through purchase and eventually through direct excavation. Papyri were arriving from Egypt by the boxload, and from the closing decades of the 19th century onward a steady stream of publications was issuing from those whose centenaries are now a cause for celebration.

The classicists could read the Greek texts, and the generation of the 1880s and 1890s became the first professionals, consciously aware of the newness of the discipline taking shape in their hands. A direct and immediate contact with the ancient Mediterranean was being established, as texts, unexamined since antiquity, were being made available to the modern world. To be sure, this writing paper of the ancients had been used not only for elegant rolls of...


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