In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Papyrology: Literary and Documentary

  • Introduction
  • History
  • Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Handbooks and Sourcebooks
  • Editorial Practice and Conventions
  • Bookroll, Codex, and Sheet
  • Paleography
  • Abbreviations and Symbols
  • Papyrology and Ancient Studies
  • Papyrology and Religious Studies
  • Papyri from Outside Egypt
  • Papyrus Conservation
  • The Papyrological Network

Classics Papyrology: Literary and Documentary
Rodney Ast
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0090


Papyrology owes its name to the paper-like writing material produced from the papyrus plant on which texts in Antiquity were commonly written. Although papyrus was used throughout the Greco-Roman world, most papyri that survive from the period come from Egypt because the Egyptian climate has been conducive to their preservation, and most are in Greek. More broadly, however, papyrology refers to any nonmonumental artifacts that bear writing: clay and stone sherds; wax, lead, bronze, and wooden tablets; fragments of parchment; and other small finds. In effect, the discipline covers textual material that is not included under the rubrics of epigraphy, numismatics, and manuscript studies, although there is inevitable overlap. In addition to Greek, texts survive in Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, and Demotic (these are generally handled by Egyptologists), as well as in Arabic, Coptic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages. Relatively few Latin papyri are extant. Chronologically, the discipline covers the late 4th century BCE to the 8th century CE, often divided into four main parts: Ptolemaic (4th century BCE–30 CE), Roman (30 BCE–284 CE), Byzantine (284–642), and Islamic (post-642), a somewhat arbitrary division not adhered to by everyone. Papyrology concerns itself with a broad range of texts often grouped into two main categories: documents and literature. The former includes official writings (imperial edicts, public announcements, official petitions, etc.) and private affairs (letters, legal contracts, accounts, etc.), while literature comprises poetry (Homer, lyric poems, tragedy, etc.) and prose (historiography, philosophy, rhetoric, etc.) as well as a class of texts often referred to as “subliterary” writings (grammatical treatises, school exercises, magic and astronomical texts, etc.). As a whole, papyrological evidence provides a good perspective on the public and private lives of a larger social stratum than that observed in written records from other parts of the Greco-Roman world. Because of the field’s traditional place within classical studies, this article focuses on Greek and Latin papyrology.


While the appearance of papyri in Europe dates significantly earlier, birth of the discipline and the beginning of the “century of papyrology” can be assigned to the late 1870s, when a large number of papyri were accidentally discovered by peasants digging for fertilizer in the Egyptian Fayum (Capasso 2007, Keenan 2009). Many of these were sold in Cairo, ending up in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. Over the next several decades, excavations were conducted in different areas of Egypt, perhaps most notably at the site of ancient Oxyrhynchus, where Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt unearthed thousands of Greek documentary, literary, and subliterary papyri (Montserrat 2007, Turner 1983), most of which landed in Oxford, with small numbers being distributed to institutions in Britain and North America. At about the same time, the German “papyrus cartel” supplied many European collections with texts purchased in Egypt (Martin 2007). In general, through a combination of excavations and purchases, collections on both sides of the Atlantic were established (Preisendanz 1933). In the early 21st century papyri and ostraca continue to be uncovered by excavators who, through greater sensitivity to stratigraphy and the overall composition of archeological sites, are able to provide more precise information about the context of papyrological discoveries (Cuvigny 2009).

  • Capasso, M. 2007. Hermae: Scholars and scholarship in papyrology. Biblioteca degli “Studi di egittologia e di papirologia” 4. Pisa, Italy: Giardini.

    Collection of brief biographies written by leading papyrologists about earlier scholars whose work has shaped papyrology.

  • Cuvigny, H. 2009. The finds of papyri: The archaeology of papyrology. In The Oxford handbook of papyrology. Edited by R. S. Bagnall, 30–58. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Interesting discussion of the history and development of archeological methods at sites that have produced papyri from the late 19th century to the present and of ways in which archeology and papyrology can on occasion elucidate each other.

  • Keenan, J. G. 2009. The history of the discipline. In The Oxford handbook of papyrology. Edited by R. S. Bagnall, 59–78. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    History of the field with emphasis on individual contributions and the various “schools” of papyrology that emerged in different countries over the course of the 20th century.

  • Martin, A. 2007. Papyruskartell: The papyri and the movement of antiquities. In Oxyrhynchus: A city and its texts. Edited by A. K. Bowman, R. A. Coles, N. Gonis, D. Obbink, and P. J. Parsons, 40–49. Graeco-Roman Memoirs 93. London: Egyptian Exploration Society.

    An account of the organization and operation of the German papyrus cartel (Deutsches Papyruskartell), which distributed papyri acquired in Egypt to buyers in Germany and elsewhere during the years 1903–1914.

  • Montserrat, D. 2007. News reports: The excavations and their journalistic coverage. In Oxyrhynchus: A city and its texts. Edited by A. K. Bowman, R. A. Coles, N. Gonis, D. Obbink, and P. J. Parsons, 28–39. Graeco-Roman Memoirs 93. London: Egyptian Exploration Society.

    Investigation of media interest in the excavations at Oxyrhynchus and the use made of it by the Egyptian Exploration Fund during the period 1897–1907.

  • Preisendanz, K. 1933. Papyrusfunde und Papyrusforschung. Leipzig, Germany: Verlag Karl W. Hiersemann.

    Somewhat dated but still very useful treatment of the history of papyrology from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. The book covers the principal scholars, collections, and excavations connected with the discipline.

  • Turner, E. G. 1983. The Graeco-Roman branch of the Egypt Exploration Society. In Excavating in Egypt: The Egypt Exploration Society, 1882–1982. Edited by T. G. H. James, 161–178. London: British Museum Publications.

    Account of the excavation and subsequent publication of Oxyrhynchus papyri under the aegis of the Greco-Roman Branch of the Egypt Exploration Society. Reprinted in Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts, edited by A. K. Bowman, R. A. Coles, N. Gonis, D. Obbink, and P. J. Parsons, Graeco-Roman Memoirs 93 (London: Egyptian Exploration Society, 1983), pp. 17–27.

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