A Single-Sheet Archive on Papyrus: The Case of a Sixth-century Amulet


P.Oxy. 1928 (Image courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)

P.Oxy. 1928 (Image courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)

Excavations reflect the problematic of archival practice. Archaeologists reflect their own priorities and historical narratives by which artefacts they choose to preserve and document. The process of digging is also a process of sifting which inevitably privileges certain objects and information as more desirable.

Most extant manuscripts from Late Antiquity were preserved in the dumps of ancient Egyptian cities such as Oxyrhynchus, where arid conditions protected documents written on papyrus (“papyri”) until excavators uncovered them around the turn of the twentieth century. While fragments were often found discarded together in baskets, the papyrus hunters—in this case Oxford’s own Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt—concentrated on potential reconstructed texts. Their priority was a text-critical project, searching for textual witnesses to early Christianity and the Greek classics. Except for the approximate dating of texts found in the same trash mounds, Grenfell and Hunt disregarded the material culture of textual artefacts and the sociological implications of artefacts juxtaposed in their initial excavated locations. As a result, any number of links between individual objects were severed as excavators sifted through baskets and baskets of fragmentary textual remains, deciding what to keep and what to discard. Although a material turn in manuscript studies has taken place over the last couple of decades, modern publication continues to concentrate on the papyri as witnesses for the reconstruction of abstracted literary texts. Through the process of archaeological discovery and academic publication, the jumbled contents of an ancient dump have been converted into a collection sharing the same methodological challenges as any other sort of archive—certain sorts of information are privileged, largely because they respond to questions posed by a particular set of narratives.[1]

This decontextualising process of excavation poses particular challenges for my research concerning papyrus amulets. For the textual critic, “paraliterary” texts like the amulets hold only a secondary interest as representatives of “literary” texts, but seem equally foreign to the demographic and historical inquiries for which the so-called “documentary” papyri are used (to borrow the conventional, if somewhat problematic, terminology of the discipline). Further, archaeologists interested only in textual data discarded the material evidence for how the amulets were used. Many appear to have been folded. In others, holes were made to facilitate wearing on a string or cord. Yet for the most part, the material settings for these amulet texts have been long lost. Casings, whether leather or papyrus, simply were not important enough to box up and ship home. Further, publication generally privileges the object as text more than anything else—something perhaps partly justified for the text-critical projects of classics or biblical studies, but inherently problematic when working with unique objects that were not only read, but actually worn.

If sifting the city dump frequently obscured connections between artefacts, perhaps a more attentive handling of smaller original collections might allow us to see textual juxtapositions with fresh eyes, while still recognising that our data remain inescapably tainted by the processes of discovery and publication. One promising example is cartonnage—a sort of ancient papier maché that recycled used sheets of papyrus into funereal masks. While this sort of rediscovered archive is not inherently balanced, the textual juxtapositions are not a function of the same sorts of conscious information-collection that shape conventional archives.

The simplest sort of unconventional archive, however, is a single sheet of papyrus—originally written on one side, and later reused with an unrelated message on the reverse. While material from ancient dumps has been haphazardly collected, and even the components of a cartonnage might be separated and sold unprovenanced on the antiquities market, it is rather hard to separate the two sides of a single papyrus sheet.[2] What this means is that even when the archival bias of an overarching collection is questionable, it still contains a plethora of mini-archives within it.

As an example, consider the sixth-century amulet P.Oxy. XVI 1928, which re-uses a portion of a legal document dated to 5 October 533. While in this case both sides have been published together (frequently not the case), the original publication by A.S. Hunt in 1924 did not address, let alone adequately problematise their relationship. For Hunt, the legal document merely provided a terminus post quem for the amulet and the edition treated the two sides as entirely discrete. Yet this legal document connects the amulet with the Apion family, wealthy landowners holding elevated positions in Byzantine imperial administration of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Such a link raises a number of questions:

–        Is this simply recycling of a discarded document, or does it suggest that the legal text on the one side has an inherent connection to the one either writing or using the amulet?

–        What does it say about the perceived function of the amulet that it could be written on the backside of another document without any apparent perceived diminution of efficacy?

–        What does it indicate when a provenanced amulet is found far from the location relevant to the legal document on the recto?

–        In an era when theological authorities discouraged the use of apotropaic magic, is an amulet linked to a family of prominent imperial administrators a datum of significance?

Even if the processes of excavation and publications have irreversibly jumbled the papyri, the material reality of recycling allows us to juxtapose two apparently independent documents and gain a thicker reading of both.

P.Oxy. 1928 (Images courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)

P.Oxy. 1928 (Image courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)



[1] See the original excavation reports in Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts (chapter 28). Of course, it is slightly ironic that in order to explore the process by which an unsifted archive (a dump) was converted into a peculiar sort of academic archive (the Oxyrhynchus papyri), I have had to resort to  a third sort of archival material, the archived excavators reports.

[2]Because of how papyrus is formed into a writing surface, it strictly speaking is possible to separate the two sides, but as such a procedure significantly compromises the structural integrity of an already-fragile artefact and has no financial benefit, it is hard to imagine a context in which that would happen.


Brief Bibliography

Bagnall, R.S., ed. 2009. The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Oxford; New York: Oxford U.P.

Bowman, A.K., ed. 2007. Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts. Graeco-Roman Memoirs 93. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

De Bruyn, T.S. and J.H.F. Dijkstra. 2011. “Greek Amulets and Formularies from Egypt Containing Christian Elements: A Checklist of Papyri, Parchments, Ostraka, and Tablets,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 48: 163–216.

Frend, W.H.C. 1991. “Apion, Family of.” In The Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. A.S. Atiya. New York: Macmillan. 1: 155a–156a.

Gamble, H. 1995. Books and Readers in the Early Christian Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale U.P.

Luijendijk, A. 2010. “Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus.” Vigiliae Christianae 64: 217–254.


 Jeremiah Coogan is reading for an MPhil in Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World at the University of Oxford.


From Memorabilia to Relic: Cardinal Newman’s Hair



Newman's hair and the envelope in which it was discovered (Photo courtesy Trinity College)

Newman’s hair and the envelope in which it was discovered (Photo courtesy Trinity College)

Archives sometimes contain unusual and unconventional things, which – precisely because they are unusual – can be difficult to categorise and house.  A lock of hair, preserved in the archive of Trinity College, Oxford, offers a prime example of just such an object and of the remarkable challenges that unconventional items of this kind can pose.

The hair was found when reordering and rehousing Trinity’s archive in the 1980s.  It was in a modern envelope, wrapped in an older sheet of paper bearing the following inscription: “Cardinal Newman’s hair obtained by me in 1875, Charles Henry Poole”.  It is a mystery how exactly the hair entered the Trinity archive, nor indeed can it be established beyond doubt how Mr Poole obtained this precious lock – although he almost certainly asked Newman for it, after receiving a kind letter from the cardinal in response to a poem that Poole had sent him (this letter is also in Trinity archive).

Newman had been an undergraduate at Trinity (1816–19), a time he expressed great affection for in later life.  On leaving the college, he became a highly influential Anglican priest and academic within the wider university, prominent in the high-church “Oxford Movement”, before converting to Roman Catholicism in 1845, to the scandal of his former Anglican friends.  In his life as a Catholic he served as a cardinal, as a strong defender of Catholicism in Britain, and as a major spiritual writer.  He died, respected and revered, in 1890.

Newman’s hair reposed undisturbed in Trinity archive for many decades, as “memorabilia”– the kind of curiosity that no-one was particularly interested in, but which archivists are expected to house.  After all, where else would the College keep it?

Five years ago, all of this changed. The then pope, Benedict XVI, had made it clear that he intended to “beatify” Newman – raising him to the status of the “Blessed” John Henry Newman, one step below canonisation and full sainthood – and intimating that this was likely to happen during the papal visit to Britain in 2010.  In March 2009 Cardinal George Pell visited Trinity, and was shown the hair, along with some important possessions and letters of John Henry Newman, also held in the archive (for instance, his first prayer book and his parents’ family bible).  One of the Cardinal’s party was Father Paul Chavasse, Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, who was wearing, as his other hat, that of Newman’s postulator (the Church official deputed to prepare and present the cause for canonisation). We noticed that our lock of hair was viewed with deeper reverence, not to say a greater degree of excitement, than was merited by mere “memorabilia” – it was becoming a holy “relic”.

This transformation was confirmed by the news of the discovery made in Birmingham on 2 October 2008, when Newman’s grave had been opened, in order to move his bones to a more venerable site within the church of the Birmingham Oratory.  No bones were left.  Trinity’s hair, from being a relatively minor corporeal relic, had become one of the few bodily remains of the cardinal that have survived.

What to do with it?  Leaving the hair in a brown envelope in the archive would have been disrespectful to those who saw it as a holy relic; but Trinity is not a Catholic institution (though it was founded as one).  In the end a satisfactory compromise solution was reached – the hair was deposited on long-term loan at the Oxford Oratory, and the Oratory commissioned a splendid silver reliquary in which to display it to the faithful: the hair is still Trinity’s; the reliquary is the Oratory’s.  Having shaken off its paper housing, and replaced it with silver, our lock of hair now resides with other relics in the Oxford Oratory.  On 19 September 2010, it featured prominently at the solemn beatification of John Henry Newman, carried out in Birmingham by Benedict XVI.  Its transformation from memorabilia to relic was complete.

Cardinal Newman's hair in its silver reliquary (photo courtesy Trinity College)

Cardinal Newman’s hair in its silver reliquary (photo courtesy Trinity College)

Bryan Ward-Perkins is a Fellow in History at Trinity College, Oxford and Director of the university’s Ertegun Graduate Programme.