On Papyri and the Acquisition and Study of Them
Various commenters have inquired about the study of ancient papyri in response to earlier postings here, some asking why, for example, the Oxyrhynchus papyri are taking so long to appear, along with other questions. I thought it would be helpful to mention a splendid resource for becoming acquainted with the field of papyrology, what’s involved, where it stands, and its future:
The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Roger S. Bagnall (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). It’s now available in paperback, which will make it more affordable to ordinary mortals (and not simply Russian oligarchs, for whom too many scholarly books seem to be priced).
The multi-author volume includes chapter-length contributions on many matters, among them, “The Conservation of ancient Papyrus Materials” (Jaakko Froesen), “Editing a Papyrus” (Paul Schubert), and “The Future of Papyrology” (Peter van Minnen), these contributions particularly helpful for understanding the mechanics of the field, what’s involved in bringing papyri to publication.
In addition, there are informative discussions of numerous other matters. To select a few, “The Ancient Book” (William A. Johnson), “The Special Case of Herculaneum” (David Sider), “Education in the Papyri” (Raffaella Cribiore), “Egyptian Religion and Magic in the Papyri” (Willy Clarysse), “The Papyri and Early Christianity” (David Martinez), and “Manichaeism and Gnosticism in the Papyri” (Cornelia Roemer). Plus a number of other impressive topics addressed.
And to grasp something of the perils that papyri go through en route to getting into the hands of scholars, have a look at The Story of the Bodmer Papyri, by James M. Robinson (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011). Robinson shows how locals who find a cache of papyri will partition rolls and codices, resulting in portions of the same book being purchased and held in various libraries across the world. So, e.g., portions of the “Bodmer” papyri (i.e., items acquired by the Bodmer Library near Geneva) are also held in the Chester Beatty Library, the University of Cologne, the Vatican Library, Duke University, the Fundacio sant Lluc Evangelista of Barcelona, a rare book dealer (H. P. Kraus in New York), and a consortium in Vaduz, Liechtenstein.
It’s also fascinating to read Robinson’s account of the acquisition of the Bodmer Papyri (pp. 35-47), which reads like a cross between an espionage novel with bits of Indiana Jones thrown in. Or read Robinson’ account of the discovery and sale of the “Dishna Papers” (108-29), which will give you shudders at the way the material was treated prior to acquisition.