I was recently asked to contribute a piece on the sale of ancient papyri for the American Schools of Oriental Research's (ASOR) publication, The Ancient Near East Today. It has just appeared in the latest issue of the ANEToday (direct link to article here). To read the piece, registration is required, but it is free.
P.CtYBR inv 5087 is the strangest yet most interesting papyrus I have ever worked on. This little papyrus slip, which was acquired by Yale University in 1997 from Gallery Nefer, Zurich, consists of three lines of text, and dates to the third century C.E. It is interesting because nothing else like it is attested in the papyrological record. The text runs as follows:
The “quarter of Hermaion” was a well-known amphodon in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. The amphoda were metropolitan districts usually named after local sanctuaries and professions. They were used to locate persons and property in Egyptian cities that would have been difficult to navigate. One can therefore understand why they were useful indicators in registrations: “so-and-so son of so-and-so in the quarter of so-and-so.” This bit of information is important because it means that the provenance of this papyrus is secure: it hails from Oxyrhynchus.
The ultimate question concerning this little papyrus is: for what purpose was it created? Who used it? In what context was it used? There is nothing else exactly like it, which makes any interpretation open for debate. Obviously, Papontos is somehow connected with the quarter of Hermaion. But why this information is given on this papyrus is open to question.
So, why do you think this papyrus was created? I will leave you in suspense for a little while and come back later with my thoughts. My edition of this interesting papyrus slip has been accepted and is forthcoming in the next issue of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists. While we probably cannot know precisely the purpose of this papyrus, I think I have a pretty good idea!
P.Oxy. 67.4633 was once a beautiful scroll containing scholia (a kind of ancient commentary) to Homer's Iliad (see image at left). This third century C.E. papyrus was discovered among the trash mounds at the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. The papyrus sheet preserves two columns of text written in a nice hand.
But this papyrus' ultimate fate was downright shitty—literally. Joseph Spooner, the papyrus' editor, stated that "the papyrus subsequently suffered an ignominious fate, as a piece of toilet paper" (87). That's right: this beautiful papyrus was last used as toilet paper, or what AnneMarie Luijendijk has called, "toilet papyrus" (246). The brown lumps of organic material were, according to Spooner, "examined by an archaeobotanist at the Institute of Archaeology, London, and were found to contain wheat husks" (87). So, the color and organic composition of these lumps suggest that someone used this Homeric papyrus for their bathroom duties.
One might wonder: do these remnants still smell like...you know? One thing we do know is that the papyrus in the image above was not found in that form. It was found folded and crumbled together, like almost every other papyrus found in the trash heaps of Oxyrhynchus. To flatten a dry lump of papyrus, one has to apply moisture to it to relax its fibers. Then, the papyrus can be flattened. According to Luijkendijk, "Whether it was the vapors let loose when this Homer piece was dampened or more substantial organic remains stuck to it, the conservation of that papyrus must have been a surprisingly unpleasant task" (246). So not only do we have a dirty papyrus, we also probably have a stinky one! Homer's Iliad was an extremely popular text in the ancient world. So perhaps this fragment was luxury toilet paper, the Charmin of the ancient world.
But all jokes aside, this papyrus prompts many questions about discarded texts in antiquity. Why were texts thrown to the dump? Who threw them away? Were they damaged or worn out and thus no longer useful? Did the "operator" of this papyrus know what text he/she was using for his/her gluteus maximus? Was this papyrus used at home or outside by the rubbish dump (no pun intended), after the papyrus had already been disposed of? This piece generates some interesting sociological questions, and while we may not know the answers to most of them, we can be sure that Homer became very useful for some ancient person at a very pressing time!
Luijendijk, AnneMarie. "Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus." Vigiliae Christianae 64 (2010): 217-254.
Spooner, Joseph. Nine Homeric Papyri from Oxyrhynchus (Florence, 2002).
Today, the internet is overrun with articles about the solar eclipse that took place this morning. A solar eclipse takes place when the sun is completely obscured by the moon. It is of course an interesting astronomical phenomenon. But the ancients were equally (and probably more) fascinated with eclipses. In the imaginative debate in Plutarch's On the Apparent Face in the Orb of the Moon, we find many references to eclipses, including the phrase "the moon placed between the sun and the earth" (De faciae 15), which signifies a solar eclipse. In fact, the ancients predicted eclipses just like we do today, and we can get a glimpse of this from the papyri. In P.Oxy. 61.4137, a Greek papyrus dated to the first half of the first century C.E., we find a prediction of two lunar eclipses, for the years 56 and 57 C.E. Alexander Jones notes that the complete papyrus would have listed a series of eclipses over several years. There were even canons, tables, and almanacs that the ancients consulted in order to make their calculations. The astronomical papyri offer fascinating insights into how the ancients conceived of astronomy, horoscopes, calendars, math, and the like. A translation and image of P.Oxy. 61.4137 is reproduced below.
The leading work on this subject is: Alexander Jones, Astronomical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus (2 vols. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1999).