From the World of the Papyri

Papyrus was the most important writing material in the ancient world. Our word "paper" derives from the word "papyrus," an Egyptian word that originally meant "that which belongs to the house" (the bureaucracy of ancient Egypt). Papyrus is a triangular reed that used to grow along the banks of the Nile, and at an early stage of their history the Egyptians developed a kind of writing material made out of the pith within the stem of the papyrus plant. At the same time they developed a script that ultimately provided the model for the two most common alphabets in the world, the Roman and the Arabic.

Although Egypt exported its writing material to other parts of the ancient world, few papyri from outside Egypt survive. Only the climate of Egypt and certain parts of Mesopotamia favors the preservation of papyri in the debris of ancient towns and cemeteries. A large number of Duke papyri were recovered from mummy cartonnage found in a cemetery near the ancient town of Heracleopolis, south of modern Cairo. Everybody knows the Egyptians mummified their dead. First they prepared the corpses and wrapped them in linen. Then they covered them with pieces of cartonnage covered with plaster and painted in bright colors. This cartonnage consists of several layers of papyrus. The papyri used for making cartonnage often came from recycling bins in administrative offices.

Most Duke papyri were written during the millennium of Greek and Roman control of Egypt, which lasted from the late fourth century BC until the middle of the seventh century AD. Most of them are written in Greek. The administration of Egypt was largely conducted in Greek after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, and this remained so under Roman rule until well after the Arabs took over in AD 640-642. The earliest piece in the collection is written in so-called Hieratic Egyptian, a script that replaced hieroglyphs at an early date for all practical purposes except for inscriptions on stone. More common are texts written in Demotic Egyptian, a script that is more cursive than Hieratic. The Duke papyrus collection also contains pieces in Coptic, Latin, and Arabic. Of all these scripts only Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic were used to write texts in the Egyptian language, the others for the languages of the conquerors. The Duke papyrus collection is the fifth largest in the western hemisphere. The bulk of the collection was acquired between 1967 and 1988 from various sources.

Papyrus texts can be as varied as texts in our twentieth-century culture. The Duke papyrus collection houses fragments of Greek literature, religious texts, magical texts, administrative documents from official reports to tax accounts, private documents from tax receipts to letters, and these texts illustrate life in Egypt under Greek and Roman rule in all its aspects. The study of these papyri is called papyrology. By far the majority of the more than 50,000 papyri published since 1788 (out of an estimated 400,000 preserved in collections around the world) are quite fragmentary. The task of the papyrologist is not only to decipher, transcribe and edit what is preserved, but also to reconstruct what is lost between fragments and reconstruct the whole. Most fragments of literature derive from rolls of papyrus, which could extend up to 35 feet in length. Fewer derive from leaves of codices, the "modern" book form introduced in Rome in the first century AD that became prevalent by the fifth century. There are several papyrologists at Duke and scholars from elsewhere make regular visits. Papyrologists approach the papyri with different interests, literary, historical, or linguistic. What unites them all is a common fascination with the most fragile legacy of ancient Egypt: papyrus.

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Last updated by John Oates 10/6/2000