The writings of ancient civilizations were on papyrus; it's fragile, it's often fragmentary, and there's only so much of it. Thanks to a new Web project, scholars worldwide are now getting access to more and better collections of ancient materials

New technology for old writing

Roger Bagnall

Apis is both the name of an ancient Egyptian bull-god and the acronym for the Advanced Papyrological Information System, a six-institution consortium with Columbia as lead partner. Stretching the Web's capabilities to link papyrus collections worldwide into a seamless virtual collection, APIS gives scholars of antiquity reasons to feel bullish about their profession's future.

Papyrus--a fibrous material made from a reed-like plant once common in the Nile valley--was the most important writing surface of the ancient world and perhaps ancient Egypt's most important legacy. Columbia has a sizable collection of Greek papyri and Arabic texts. Today relatively few papyri make it into the market, at enormous prices; the few thousand dollars a year that Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler allowed historian William Linn Westermann to spend on papyri earlier in this century were a good investment. We also bought more than 4,000 ostraca (broken potsherds or stone chips with writing on them), mostly in Coptic Egyptian, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 1960s; these came from their excavations across the Nile from Luxor.

These materials record everything from high literature to documents of daily life. Some literary fragments are either ancient witnesses to works known otherwise from medieval manuscripts or texts hitherto lost in antiquity; I recently looked at a neatly lettered ostracon in Coptic and realized that it was a few verses of St. Paul (2 Cor. 5:17-19). Mostly, however, our texts are private letters or documents of every conceivable sort--legal and business papers, government regulations, property records, petitions to high officials, and farm reports. Except for their usually fragmentary nature and extreme antiquity, these papyri reflect quotidian affairs much as modern records do. From such documentary papyri were born the fields of ancient social, economic, and administrative history, which have increasingly displaced the older histories of kings and battles. The papyri are thus the source of a large part of what we know about antiquity, particularly economic life and social relations.

Papyri are often fragmentary, not only because water and insects have done their worst, but because their discoverers and owners have cut them up to sell the pieces for more money. For example, one roll in our collection, which includes receipts for money paid to donkey- and camel-drivers for delivering wheat taxes, has long been known to join up with pieces in Berlin's Staatliche Museen. A fragment in Groningen (Netherlands) turned out to belong to the same roll, and I have received a new volume showing that a papyrus in Paris is another sizable part of the same document. Some parts are apparently still at large. Even when individual pieces are not divided, archives almost always are, and papyri from individual localities are spread over many collections. As a result, papyrologists spend an inordinate amount of time and money getting photographs from distant collections or traveling to work with the originals. As more and more papyri are published (the total is now about 50,000), the body of material becomes ever more unmanageable.

Papyrologists' traditional working tools, as in many text-based humanities fields, are dictionaries and bibliographies. These have entered the electronic age with the digitization of the basic textual material: All papyrus documents can now be searched in the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri, and a bibliography produced in Brussels on index cards has been converted to electronic form at Columbia. But the physical images have long been the missing element. Five years ago I suggested at an international congress of papyrology that digital imaging could help solve the problem of access to distant collections, and that software would let us knit together textual data and images to form a single system. I got mostly puzzled stares; many Europeans still thought that technology was an odd American obsession. But at the classics meetings the next year, a younger colleague at Michigan asked when I was going to do something about it.

Eighteen months later, an application was at the National Endowment for the Humanities, representing the six most important papyrus collections in the United States: Berkeley, Columbia, Duke, Michigan, Princeton, and Yale. In 1996 we began work, with an NEH grant and local private support. The second phase of work, to end in 2000, should leave us with a fully working system and completed cataloguing and imaging at all except the two biggest collections (Berkeley and Michigan). Moreover, the most important collection in Britain, that of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford (including the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the single most important publication series) will join APIS; we expect other collections will wish to join, creating an infinitely expandable system.

What exactly will we have produced? From a technical point of view, we will have a central meta-database, with a catalogue record for each object in each collection; that record will include a pointer to the machines where the text, translation, images, commentary, and bibliography can be found. To the user, the technical structure will be invisible except for the line in the browser showing the URL one is currently visiting. The user's view, instead, will be of an informative interface, offering many different routes into the material. The specialist, for example, might wish to search a Greek term or ask for a specific reference (P.Oxy. IV 815, for example, in papyrologist's lingo). An economic historian not trained in papyrology might want to find all the land leases; searching by document type will be available. Someone interested in eye diseases could search the translations for "eye" and related vocabulary. A student writing on taxation could search for appropriate terms. At any point one will be able to move from text to translation to image to bibliography, whether to follow up a discovery with similar texts or to check the image and see if the editor read the papyrus correctly.

Much work lies ahead. Most of Columbia's collection--and it is not alone in this--has never been catalogued; some has hardly been looked at. Associate Curator Raffaella Cribiore is creating the catalogue papyrus by papyrus, ostracon by ostracon, with the help of consultants in Arabic and Coptic. Assistants have been removing papyri from thick glass sandwiches with oozing tape (vintage '60s) and reframing them in lighter glass, then making precise images with the Phase One digital camera, a scanning back attached to a Hasselblad camera body and lens. The ostraca, long wrapped up in ratty cotton wool and packed away in boxes, are being rehoused in drawers for instant access; in the process, long- separated fragments are being rejoined. Information systems technicians are coordinating the data-storage standards of multiple institutions, a challenging step needed to bring the concept of a distributed virtual library to fruition.

The result of these labors will be a dramatic change--not only for papyrologists (who have at least been able to examine papyri by visiting collections) but for the public, from whom these objects have been hidden in two ways: The originals have been locked up and invisible except in the occasional display, and the publications have been almost as impenetrable, rarely designed to convey information to a non-specialist. APIS will open this immense body of information to those who do not know the ancient languages and have not been trained in the arcana of papyrology. We probably cannot--and should not--turn back the tide of increasing scholarly specialization, but with the aid of tools like APIS, we can do much more to make the results available to every interested citizen.

Related links:

  • Papyrology Home Page

  • La papyrologie et l'électronique

  • Egypt: Egyptological Institutions

  • Center for the Study of Ancient Documents

  • ROGER S. BAGNALL, Ph.D., is professor of classics and history, chairman of the Department of Classics, and curator of the papyrus collection. He has led APIS as president of the American Society of Papyrologists. An earlier version of this article appeared in Columbia's GSAS News & Views.