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In the Mouth of the Crocodile

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, May/June 2001 | Volume 22, Number 3

A hundred years ago, digging for mummies in the Fayum basin of Egypt, a workman unearthed the leathery body of a crocodile.

"He pulled it out of the sand," says Anthony S. Bliss, curator of the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley. "He chucked it, just heaved it out of the way. It must have hit a rock or something because it broke open and then it was discovered that the crocodile was stuffed with papyri."

The papyri, which later proved to include royal proclamations and literature, were being used to help the crocodile hides maintain their shape during mummification.

Fragments of lost works such as Sophocles's Inachus were found among the Tebtunis papyri, along with known texts from Homer, Pindar, and Euripides. The documents from the January 1900 expedition eventually came to reside at the University of California-Berkeley.

Now these documents, along with other papyri and ancient written materials held by a half dozen American universities and one foreign university, are being recorded and digitized with NEH support to give worldwide access to scholars and nonspecialists alike.

At the time they stumbled upon the crocodile cemetery with its hundreds of mummified crocodiles, archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt had already found papyri in the town of Tebtunis, at the temple of the crocodile god Soknebtunis, and in the cartonnage of more than fifty human mummies. The Tebtunis find consisted of more than 21,000 fragments, the largest American collection from a single site.

Over the next hundred years, papyrologists dealt with the Tebtunis papyri in fits and starts. Three volumes documenting the collection were published between 1902 and 1933. In 1938 the fragments were transferred to Berkeley, where they were sandwiched between old issues of the Oxford Daily Gazette and placed in tin boxes. More than thirty years later a fourth volume was published, followed by another short-lived effort to catalog and preserve the fragments.

The Berkeley collection languished for years, waiting for someone to have the time to deal with it, says Roger S. Bagnall, project director and professor of classics and history at Columbia University.

"Institutions such as Berkeley and Yale, which both own significant collections of papyri, had not had a papyrologist on staff for more than a decade," says Bagnall, "largely because papyrology has never been a very popular discipline among classical scholars in the United States. The classics have always been a very literary field, and classicists tend to be interested in new literary texts. The papyri didn't have a payoff for undergraduate teaching. But, in fact, papyrology was developing a whole new body of information about parts of the ancient world where Greek was only one of the cultures."

In recent years, the field has taken a 180-degree turn, due to the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS), an NEH-funded collaborative project of Columbia University, Duke University, Princeton University, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and Yale University. Papyrologists at these institutions are integrating the holdings from their papyri collections into a "virtual library" through digital images and detailed catalog records.

Preservation activities today stand in the position of the Roman god Janus, says Bagnall. "They look forward to the astonishing capabilities of new technology and back to traditional methods of recording and preserving the intellectual and physical heritage of earlier millennia," he says. "The APIS project shares this bi-directional character."

He christened the project APIS because of its reference to the Egyptian god Apis, a sacred bull believed to be an incarnation of the powerful gods of the underworld and the sun. Creator of the earth and patron of artisans and metalworkers, Apis was represented as a mummy.

Most of the activities in the project—such as the physical conservation of ancient artifacts, the writing and cataloging in standard library records, and the recording of images of these objects to reduce wear and tear and preserve their intellectual contents—are well established, Bagnall points out. "But APIS moves beyond this, toward the future, by incorporating a set of standards for imaging, for the formats of the electronic data generated, and for the linking of the various sets of electronic data. So the entire project will be carried out in a way that creates an integrated information system available over the Internet." APIS will serve as a single, seamless system.

A number of different materials were used in Egypt to record everything from high literature to the communications that make up daily life. Cheaper materials included wooden tablets and clay ostraca, pieces of broken pottery. But papyrus was the most important writing material of the ancient world.

The plant grew in Nile marshes and was used in Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, and the Roman Empire from as far back as 3000 B.C. to the beginning of the European Middle Ages. The word itself, from which the English word "paper" comes, is derived from an Egyptian expression meaning "from the great house," referring to the Pharaonic administration of ancient Egypt.

Papyrus manuscripts were first discovered in Herculaneum, a ruined city in ancient Italy, in the 1750s. Over the past three centuries, the modern world has retrieved such important lost works as the poetry of Sappho, the comedies of Menander, the Constitution of the Athenians by Aristotle, and early Christian and Gnostic works.

But nine out of ten published papyri are private letters or documents—legal and business papers, government regulations, property records and transactions, petitions to high officials, tax and rent receipts, bank deposits and payments, and farm and crop reports, as well as more personal documents such as letters, horoscopes, and amulets. These documents reflect the everyday affairs of government, commerce, and give insight into people's daily lives. According to Peter van Minnen, who conserved and interpreted the papyri in Duke's collection, the texts help reconstruct ancient civilization at large—its social, economic, political, legal, religious, linguistic, and even medical history. "Usually, we have only the works of biased classical authors to tell us what their life was like," says van Minnen. "Even inscriptions on stone tend to be written with posterity in mind. Papyri, however, were not written for us but for the use of the ancients themselves. This gives them their freshness and directness. Their interest is even greater when they are part of one and the same private archive, because in that case we can follow the ups and downs of a family through several decades, generations, or even centuries."

There are about a hundred papyri in the Duke collection from the archive of Ammon, a lawyer from Panopolis in Upper Egypt. One is a letter written to his mother while he was on a business trip in Alexandria, in 348 A.D. It is the longest private letter from the ancient world. In meticulously written Greek, Ammon describes his efforts to persuade the high priest of Egypt to appoint his nephew, Horion, as a "prophet" or priest of the Panopolite Nome.

At the University of Michigan, the archives include instructions from a Greek gentleman to his wife. "So when you have received this letter of mine," he writes, "make your preparations in order that you may come at once if I send for you. And when you come, bring ten shearings of wool, six jars of olives, four jars of liquid honey, and my shield, the new one only, and my helmet. Bring also my lances. Bring also the fitting of the tent. If you find the opportunity, come here with good men. Let Nonnos come with you. Bring all our clothes when you come. When you come, bring your gold ornaments, but do not wear them on the boat."

A considerable portion of the papyri in Berkeley's collection once formed part of the archive of Menches, the komogrammateus, or village secretary, of Kerkeosiris. The papers contain petitions from villagers who felt wronged and who petitioned Menches to obtain redress. In 114 B.C., for example, Haruotes, son of Phaesis, wrote complaining about an attack upon him in the temple of Isis.

"While I was in the great temple of Isis here for devotional purposes on account of the sickness from which I am suffering, on the twenty-third of Pachon of the third year, Horos son of Haruotes, a resident in the aforesaid temple of Isis, picked a quarrel with me, and beginning with abuse and unseemly behavior he at last fell upon me and gave me many blows with the staff which he was carrying. Therefore, since in consequence of the blows my life is in danger, I make this statement to you in order that it may be forwarded by you to the proper officials and I may have it placed on record, so that if anything happens to me subsequently, he may not escape unpunished. Farewell."

Papyrus is a remarkably durable material, more permanent than rag paper, and far more so than the acidic paper that has been used since 1850, Bagnall says. "It is of course much older than most paper manuscripts, and most papyri are torn on several, if not all, sides. They usually emerge dirty, crumpled, and twisted, unless they have been preserved in a box or jar as occasionally happens. Some preliminary conservation is generally done by dealers or in the field, but usually full cleaning and straightening is left for laboratory work in the library, which, until recently, often meant never."

In restoring and studying papyri, scholars have to contend with locating missing pieces, handling fragile materials, and keeping track of all the papyri, which are often located in any number of collections around the world.

Spurred by these challenges, papyrologists in the early 1990s began to take note of developments in digital imaging and the World Wide Web. The University of Michigan, home to one of the largest collections of papyri in the world, led the way by establishing a digitization project to make its collections available on the web through digital images and catalog records.

"The process of digitization is very simple," explains Traianos Gagos. Gagos is an archivist of papyrology at Michigan and vice president of the American Society of Papyrologists. "You capture an image of the document with a flat-bed scanner or, more recently, a digital camera. Then you upload it to the web, along with its corresponding catalog record and translation."

Other universities quickly followed Michigan's lead. From 1992 to 1994, Duke University completed an electronic archive of its papyrus collection. By 1993, it became clear that more collections would undertake projects similar to those at Michigan and Duke. Bagnall, then the president of the American Society of Papyrologists, saw an opportunity. Under his leadership, the society created a technology committee to oversee and coordinate such projects, and establish methodology and standards for image capture and cataloging. This was the birth of APIS. By the end of 1994, Princeton University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Yale University had joined the original consortium.

Since APIS was conceived, large portions of the collections at the partner institutions have been conserved—cleaned, straightened, mounted in glass, and stored in acid-free boxes. Yale and Berkeley have hired full-time papyrologists to work on the collections. But much work remains, as most of the papyri in these collections are still unpublished and in some cases, unexamined.

APIS has already started to transform research and teaching in papyrology as scholars use digital sources to make learning a more interactive process. "It has clearly changed the way we do our research, and the content and contextual links that we can now create between various texts that come from the same ancient site but belong to different collections around the country and the globe," Gagos says. "This allows us to expand our horizon from one or a few texts to a more global view of texts and archives of common provenance."

Scholars in other fields are becoming more aware of the rich resources of APIS, Gagos says. "I have received several messages from graduate students in ancient history, for instance from as far as Australia, commenting on the invaluable assistance of APIS in their research."

Gagos has developed and taught courses at the University of Michigan that require undergraduates to produce their own online research projects. Gagos's undergraduate students, in conjunction with his "Egypt after the Pharaohs" class, created most of the archives on Michigan's Papyrus web page.

APIS is not just transforming instruction and research in papyrology; it is making papyrological materials readily accessible to nonspecialists for the first time. "APIS is designed to be usable by nonspecialists and can open up material outside the canon. It allows the full diversity of a multilingual and multicultural ancient society to be visible both in text and in images," Bagnall says. "Not everyone was a Greek or a Roman, not all activities were the sole province of men, and not everyone was rich."

About the Author

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

Funding Information

The APIS project has received $609,550 in support from NEH. The website can be found at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/ projects/digital/apis/ and more information on the Tebtunis papyri is available at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/APIS/index.html.