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Our papyrus collection: history and management

A recent estimate indicates that the Library possesses around 1,500 texts written on papyrus, though their physical condition makes an exact count challenging. An overview of all the papyrus texts is complicated by the fact that the material support is not the primary consideration in their management here. Library departments can be language, subject, skill or acquisition-based and as the papyrus texts are written in different languages and from different sources, holdings are distributed in various departments of the Library.

In some cases, the papyri belong to larger collections of texts written on other supports such as vellum, paper or pottery and form only a part of a collection from a single source. In some cases, papyrus documents have been acquired along with the personal papers of academics or with the excavation reports of archaeologists and so have come here as part of a personal archive. Some papyrus fragments are held in departments based around a single collection such as the Cairo Genizah or Bible Society.

Near and Middle Eastern Department

In general, the primary focus of the organisation of papyrus texts is by language and as the greatest number are written in ancient Egyptian languages, Demotic, Coptic or Arabic they are curated in the Near and Middle Eastern Department.

Historically the Department has been focused on collections in Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Syriac: the languages taught in Cambridge, in some cases for centuries. So although the papyri themselves date from a much earlier time, they were introduced later into a Department with already established holdings and a different skill focus.

The very first papyrus holdings came here as donations, beginning in the late nineteenth century. For instance, a small bundle of fragments in Coptic and Arabic was donated in 1894 by the Professor of Hebrew, William Robertson-Smith (1846-94), who was later also the University Librarian.

Other papyrus texts came here by purchase, such as the 1903 acquisition of the ‘Nash Papyrus’ a single fragment from the 2nd century BCE containing the text of the Ten Commandments. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was the oldest known manuscript containing a text from the Hebrew Bible. It was purchased from an Egyptian dealer by Dr Walter Llewellyn Nash and is said to have come from the Fayyum.

Sir Herbert Thompson and the Chair of Egyptology

In 1939, Herbert Thompson, the Coptic and Demotic specialist who had originally studied at Trinity College Cambridge, donated to the Library a collection of Coptic ostraca and a file of Coptic texts written on vellum. These collections, though not themselves papyri, strengthened Thompson’s connection with Cambridge where he became a significant figure in the development of Egyptology as an academic subject. For more on Thompson, see this blogpost.

Teaching in Coptic, Demotic and other ancient Egyptian languages in Cambridge was first introduced as part of degree courses in connection with other ancient languages in the Oriental Institute (later Faculty), notably in the 1920s by the Coptic scholar Stephen Gaselee. In the 1930s and later in the 1940s, teaching was by the Demotic scholar, Stephen Glanville, Professor of Egyptology at UCL.

Herbert Thompson was Glanville’s teacher and after Thompson’s death in 1944, he left the residue of his estate, probably persuaded by Glanville, to the University of Cambridge to endow a chair in Egyptology. It was founded in 1946 and the subject became an established degree course with its own Tripos exam in 1950. The establishment of teaching in Egyptology as a course of study in its own right provided a much stronger context in which papyri could be collected.

The Egyptology chair was held by Glanville from 1946 to 1956 and he was succeeded in the post by his pupil Jack Plumley from 1957-77. After Plumley’s death in 1999, his papyrus collection, consisting of around 260 fragments, was donated to the Library by his widow. Plumley was primarily a Coptic scholar so this is a mainly Coptic collection but with some texts in Greek. It includes personal letters, literary texts, and accounts.

Recent changes to Egyptology teaching

During the last decade, the teaching of Egyptology in Cambridge has been transferred, along with its library, from the Oriental Faculty to the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology. As a result of this change, in 2013, some collections of archives and manuscripts were transferred to the University Library as being a more suitable location, followed by a second transfer in 2015. Among these papers were the working notes of Herbert Thompson, among which were discovered two collections of papyrus fragments in Demotic and Coptic which had been stored there unknown for many years. This brings the Thompson story full-circle as here they re-joined his earlier gifts made to the Library over seventy years previously.

Green collection

However, not all collections of papyri acquired by the Department have come from Cambridge teaching officers. We have a collection from Frederick William Green (1869-1949), the Egyptologist and excavator who worked on various Egyptian sites with Somers Clarke, Flinders Petrie, and James Quibell. He also worked for the Egyptian Government Geological Survey as a mapmaker.

Green’s connection with Cambridge is that he was Honorary Keeper of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum (1908-40). After his death in 1949, a collection of around 176 of his papyrus fragments was acquired by the Library. The majority of these are in Coptic but with a smaller number in Greek. Initial attempts were made to sort and list this collection in the 1990s by the Cambridge Coptic scholar, Sarah Clackson, who also published a number of the texts, but this work ceased at her death in 2003.

Michaelides collection

In 1977, the Library bought the collection of papyrus fragments of the Greek antiquities dealer Georges Michaelides. Born in Cairo in 1900, Michaelides developed an interest in hieroglyphs, ancient Egyptian religion, and in the history of Egypt from its early civilisations to beyond the Islamic conquest. At the time of his death in 1973, he was in possession of more than 1,700 fragments of texts in ancient Egyptian languages, Coptic, Greek and the largest number in Arabic.

In this collection are around 920 fragments of text on papyrus. Those in Arabic are now available, together with descriptions produced by Professor Geoffrey Khan, in the Cambridge Digital Library. They include personal letters, legal and literary texts, and accounts; only a small number have been the subject of academic study.

Genizah Collection

In the collection of the Cairo Genizah, there is a single papyrus codex of significant interest. It is a set of liturgical poems by Joseph b. Nissan of Neve Qiryatayim, a contemporary of Eleazar b. Kallir (c. sixth century CE). At some point during the eighth or ninth century, a scribe copied Nissan’s poems out on to papyrus leaves, which were bound into a codex. This was discovered by Solomon Schechter in 1897, shortly after his Genizah hoard arrived at Cambridge from Cairo.

The papyrus leaves were originally matted together in one single mass but in the 1950s the leaves were separated out and conserved in glass. This is the only surviving papyrus text in the Genizah collection, it is the only known papyrus codex written in Hebrew characters, and is probably one of the earliest medieval Hebrew books known.

Department of Manuscripts and Archives

Collections of Greek papyrus fragments are curated by the Department of Manuscripts and Archives. Among these are a collection of fragments from the Oxyrhynchus excavation. A very extensive collection excavated during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt at an ancient rubbish dump in Egypt, parts of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus collection are housed in institutions all over the world, with many in Oxford. The CUL Oxyrhynchus collection comprises 92 papyrus fragments in Greek dating from between the first and seventh centuries CE, and which came to the Library in 1901. They include religious and legal documents, letters and literary works.

The Department of Manuscripts also holds other early literary texts in Greek of which nine are on papyrus and originated from Egypt. One special item is a collection of small papyrus fragments containing lines from the twelfth book of Homer’s Odyssey dating from the 2nd century. This was also acquired from W. L. Nash along with the Nash papyrus; both were displayed in a 2016 exhibition commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Library’s foundation.

Bible Society

The Library of the Bible Society also possesses a single papyrus codex. The British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804, established its own library of printed books, which grew up to support its Bible publishing efforts. This library came here to Cambridge on permanent loan in 1985, and among its treasures, it holds a copy of the almost complete text of the Gospel of St John. Discovered in Egypt in 1923, it is written in Coptic and was rolled up in a linen bag. It is estimated to date from the 4th century CE and consists of 43 leaves of papyrus written on both sides and it is conserved in glass.

Overview and recent progress

Many of the papyrus fragments require some further conservation work or catalogue processing before they are in a suitable state to be made available for research.

Progress is being made in various areas beginning with surveys of the various papyri collections. We now have a conservator, Anna Johnson, who has undertaken specialist training and who is conserving and rehousing the papyri in most urgent need of attention. One of our collections (Michaelides) is now digitised and there are plans to for further digitisation.

The recent reorganization of teaching in Egyptology and the rediscovery of the Thompson papyrus fragments have certainly been factors which have given fresh impetus to look at the papyrus collections anew. CUL has also participated in national and international initiatives around the study and conservation of papyri, hosting the Third Annual Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting in June 2017.

Contact us

For Near and Middle Eastern collections including Thompson, Green, Plumley and Michaelides, please contact Yasmin Faghihi (yf227@cam.ac.uk) of the Near and Middle Eastern Department.

For Oxyrhynchus and other Greek collections, please contact Suzanne Paul (sp510@cam.ac.uk) of the Department of Manuscripts and Archives.