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.