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).
Renowned Oxford papyrologist Peter J. Parsons describes the process of editing papyri from Oxyrhynchus:
"The pleasures of the [Oxyrhynchus] project have been threefold. First, there is the pleasure of the chase: open a box of unpublished papyri, and you never know what you will find — high poetry and vulgar farce, sales and loans, wills and contracts, tax returns and government orders, private letters, shopping lists and household accounts. Then, there is the pleasure of comprehension: as you decipher the ink, still black after two thousand years, you begin to make words out of letters and then sentences out of words; the eye looks for shapes, and the mind looks for sense, and the two in alliance will (all being well) turn a string of symbols into intelligible text. Thirdly, your new text finds its place within larger structures. A fragment of Greek Comedy may add a new scene to a play already known from other fragments; an edict of the governor of Egypt may join other documents to hint at reform and politics; the lease of a vineyard will contribute evidence about price-inflation and consumer preference. Throughout the process, the researcher becomes aware of a unity. Every fragment of every kind in every box belongs in one historical and geographical context — the reading, writing and working citizens of Oxyrhynchus, the City of the Sharp-nosed Fish."
Excerpt from: Parsons, P.J. City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007, xxvi-xxvii.
Today marks this blog's 2nd anniversary. I have been overwhelmed at the amount of views this blog gets on a daily basis. In the last year, there have been anywhere from 100 to 2,000 views each day from all around the world. The numbers are as follows (thanks to Google Analytics):
243,800 page views from 148 countries and 4,801 cities! Of the 148 countries, the top ten are:
By far the most popular post this year was The 'First Century' Gospel of Mark, Josh McDowell, and Mummy Masks: What They All Have in Common, which received 23,524 page views:
This blog has been cited in Live Science, The Daily Beast, and The Telegraph, as well as numerous syndicated media outlets.
I have always had three main goals in running this website: 1) to disseminate information about papyrology and early Christianity through blogging, 2) to host my scholarly publications through a convenient platform, 3) and to collect and present a wealth of online papyrological resources. I have managed to review 4 books in the last year, and some of these reviews were published later in journals. Publishers have been willing to send me review copies because of the quality of my reviews, and for those companies (Brill, Walter de Gruyter, Baylor, Baker, Eerdmans, Oxford, T&T Clark, etc.), I am most grateful.
I should also like to thank my readers for continuing to like, post, share, and feature this blog on their own blogs and websites. It has been good fun producing content, but also rewarding. I have received numerous comments and questions from readers who are getting interested in papyrology precisely because of this blog! I have received emails from journalists, pastors, undergraduate and graduate students, full-time faculty members, antiquities dealers, business owners, and people who are just interested. If that is not evidence that my goals in doing this blog are being accomplished, then I don't know what is.
Readers are welcome to comment on how this blog might be improved. Please do so in the comments section below, or privately through the contact section of this site. The next year looks promising, especially because I have a new and very exciting change that is coming to this website. I am still working on developing it, but I will unveil it sometime in the coming months. Thanks again!