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Dating Ancient Papyri

June 24, 2016

Further to my recent posts about recent proposals for the dating of certain NT papyri, let me briefly clarify the process of dating papyri, which might well seem a mystery to those not familiar with it.

There are two main types of papyri:  “documentary” (letters, official documents such as land-transfers, marriage contracts, shipping bills, etc.) and “literary” (treatises, poetry, history, fiction, etc.).  Documentary texts are often/typically dated by the writer, which makes dating the manuscript fairly straightforward.  But literary texts are hardly ever dated.  So in their case the only way forward is by estimating the approximate time-frame of the handwriting (often referred to as the “hand” of the manuscript).

Dating ancient Greek handwriting, for example, requires making comparisons with other dated manuscripts, and over the past several decades especially (as more and more papyri has come into view) palaeographers have tried to develop a broad sense of developments in Greek handwriting across several centuries (from the Ptolemaic period, from which our earliest papyri comes, to “late antiquity” or the Byzantine period).  So, when examining some undated papyrus, palaeographers try to place its hand in that broad time frame, looking at the basic “style” of the hand.

They will, therefore, look for “comparators,” i.e., other dated papyri with a “hand” similar to the papyrus under investigation.  It is especially important to look for comparators that are themselves securely dated, i.e., documentary texts.  But, on the other hand, documentary texts are often written in a “documentary hand,” which is much like the difference between modern cursive writing and writing out individual letters.  So, quite often, one must rely heavily on other literary “hands” in manuscripts that have themselves been dated by palaeographical comparison.

There are books containing photos of many papyri of various dates that one can consult to help in this.  But the expert palaeographers will have looked at perhaps a few hundred papyri, developing a close sense of an inventory of “hands” that enables them to make judgements.  This kind of expertise requires a commitment to this task, and the admiration and gratitude of the rest of us.

Sometimes, a literary text is written on the reverse (outer) side of a scroll, a re-use of a scroll.  And if the original use of the scroll was for a dated documentary text, then that means that the re-use must have happened at some point subsequent to the original documentary text, at least giving an “upper” date limit.

But, as with all such judgement-activities, experts can disagree, often by several decades, even a century or so, and sometimes even more.  In part, this is because different palaeographers take somewhat different approaches, some focusing more on the overall appearance of the “hand” and others focusing more on particularities of individual letters, for example.  Also (and this is actually encouraging), sometimes a given expert can change his/her mind, revising an earlier judgement in the light of further reflection on the data.

It’s not, however, simply all subjectivism.  And, contrary to one reported statement by a scholar not himself a palaeographer, it’s not all “bullshit.”  Typically, people today will call for carbon-14 testing.  But, as is evident from recent examples, carbon-14 testing can’t really do more than offer a certain probability for a timeframe of approximately a century or so:  about the same timeframe that palaeographers can offer.

Further, as I noted in a posting a couple of years ago (here) arising from a conference on papyri dating that I took part in, the results of carbon-14 testing of several papyri yielded date-estimates pretty much in agreement with the dating proposed by palaeographers.  These tests, thus, suggest (1) that carbon-14 dating is no more precise than palaeographical dating, and (2) that palaeographical dating by really competent experts is broadly reliable, independently confirmed in these carbon-14 tests.

(For anyone seriously interested in learning more, the following two publications: The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Roger S. Bagnall [Oxford University Press, 2009]; and the classic gem by Eric G. Turner, Greek Papyri:  An Introduction [2nd ed; Clarendon Press, 1980].)

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    The thing about paleography as a dating method is that it’s all relative, at least that’s what my uncle told me.

    I once dated a MS to the third century. But that was just because we were nervous, the second date didn’t feel as if it lasted so long.

    Keep up the good work professor!

    • Donald: I have no idea what your final sentence means, but to respond to the first one: Yes, palaeography, along with a lot of other scholarly work is “relative”. That simply means that an expert has to be familiar with a lot of comparative data, on the basis of which a judgement can be made. I indicated the use of “comparators”, i.e., other manuscripts with similar “hands”. That’s what “relative” means.

  2. Thank you Dr. H
    I often wondered with what palaeographers compare undated documents to come to such a certain decision. I never took the dated official “documentary” documents into account. It is also reassuring that the work of palaeographers had been confirmed by independent “scientific” proof like the carbon 14 tests, not always needing to destroy a fraction, even how small, of the document.

  3. Bill Wortman permalink

    Perhaps I have misunderstood your admittedly limited comments here, LH, regarding carbon 14 dating. You seem dismissive of its value, since c-14 dating on past occasions has ‘merely’ confirmed what paleographers concluded by other means. But isn’t this an argument for its value? A non-alignment of ‘strictly’ paleographical vs. c-14 dating methods would be valuable information to the paleographer.

    • I don’t think you’re “hearing” me. Carbon 14 can’t determine a date any more precise than ca. a century or more, which is about as precise as palaeography dating. And if you read the posting a few days back where I reported on blind tests using carbon 14, the results were pretty much the same as palaeographical dating.

  4. Ronald Minton permalink

    And carbon 14 dating will destroy a small part of the document being dated

  5. Thank you for your reminder of this information.

  6. Very informative, thanks!

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