This week’s blog is about the oldest artefacts we have here at Worcester Cathedral Library: tiny fragments of Egyptian papyrus that date from the first, second, and third centuries! These were presented to Canon J. M. Wilson by B. P. Grenfell on the 5th of September 1922.
|Iamge of all four of the tiny fragments. Photograph reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)|
Papyrus was the most important writing material of antiquity and was used until the first centuries of the Christian era. Papyrus is made from the vertically ribbed pith of the triangular papyrus stalk. Papyrus was commonly used in the form of rolls, which measured on average 25 cm x 19 cm. Rolls were produced by laying strips of papyrus side by side, then a second layer of strips would be laid on top at right angles, and the two layers would then be pressed together. Papyrus, importantly, is a term that is used to describe both documents AND books.
How did Egyptian papyrus end up in Worcester Cathedral Library?
Grenfell was a Birmingham born scientist and Egyptologist. The papyrus fragments which Grenfell donated to the Cathedral Library were found during an archaeological dig of the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. Grenfell carried out the excavation alongside a good friend, Arthur Surridge Hunt. The two had met as students at Queen’s College Oxford. They carried out a systematic excavation of Oxyrhynchus with a team comprised of around 200 men, and the project was financed by the Egypt Exploration Society of London, in 1897.
|Detail of two of the fragments. Photograph reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)|
As many as 50,000 rolls and fragments of papyrus, of which the fragments here at Worcester were part of, were found by Hunt and Surridge in the ancient dumpsites of Oxyrhynchus. It is astounding, at least to this blogger, to think that dumpsites or old rubbish from this city (which was a wealthy regional capital) survived more or less perfectly intact until the late ninteenth-century! The papyrus in the Oxyrhynchus dumpsites was buried relatively shallow; it was positioned far enough above ground level so as to avoid any ground water reaching them. It rarely rains in Egypt, and the constant drifting of sand combined with dry climate creates the perfect conditions for the preservation of papyrus.
By comparison, the climates of Italy, Greece and England are not hospitable to the preservation of papyrus. Papyrus was used by some Western chanceries well into the early Middle Ages, but the wetter conditions of Europe have dictated that very little of the papyrus used in Europe survives today. Parchment began to be widely used in Europe from the fourth century, as it was more robust and able to withstand the climate better than papyrus.
|Detail of one of the fragments. Photograph reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)|
Fragment 1 is from the top of a column of a document; its content is doubtful, it is possibly a petition from the early second century in Greek.
Fragment 2 is from the top of a column of an official list of landholders, no doubt for taxation purposes. It is written in Green, in a clear cursive hand of the late second century. On the reverse is what appears to be part of an account of grain in a different hand
Fragment 3 is of a letter written in a large hand, on the back of a taxation list- which is now all but faded. It dates from the second or third century and is written in Greek.
Fragment 4 is a taxation or survey list probably containing a list of names for some official function. It dates from he ate first or early second A.D.
Want to know more?
If you are interested in learning more about the wealth of papyrus and material culture found by Grenfell at Oxyrhynchus, then you may wish to click the link below which will take you to an online database and exhibition on this ancient Egyptian dumpsite.