Even those of us most committed to academic freedom in the humanities may feel aggrieved at thestatistic quoted by Richard Janko in his review of The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Such, it seems, isthe shortage of papyrologists that it will take a thousand years to publish even the ancient texts that havelong ago been pulled from the Egyptian sands, let alone any new ones. A visitor from space who saw thequantity of secondary analysis that arrives in the TLS each year might wonder whether some of thiscritical effort should be directed to harder primary tasks. Even before this unlikely revolution in academic practice takes place, Janko argues that we should be determinedly discovering more texts, excavating the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum lest Vesuvius erupt again and finish off the job of destruction it failed to complete in 79 AD.
“Read the Rolls” Times Literary Supplement 2 April 2010Richard Janko
Roger S. Bagnall, editor THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF PAPYROLOGY 688pp. Oxford University Press. £85 (US $150). 978 0 19 517838 8
Suppose you track down, by brilliant detective work, the personal papers of a famous writer,dead for 150 years, which have reposed, untouched by his heirs and by theirs, in a trunk in anattic in France. You are the first to remove the pins that he put in to hold the pages together. Thestuff of fiction? Such things do happen.Hundreds of pages from notebooks, extracts of literary works by others, batches of letters sent tohim, drafts of letters he wrote, legal documents, deeds, share certificates, bills, receipts,advertisements, newspaper clippings, train timetables, jottings of ideas, account-books… you areable to study everything just in time, before it is sold at auction for large sums and dispersed allover the world. From such an archive much of a life can be reconstructed in more detail than hewho lived it ever understood, and the biographies of hundreds whom he knew, from all walks of life, can be vividly illuminated.To put the picture back together you can rely on meticulous French archives, organized courtesyof Napoleon. Everything is soluble once you learn which register to check, which box to order;the Paris archives burned in 1870, but persistence, published almanacs and local sources fill thegaps. Foreigners in the dossiers? Off to Aix, Brussels or Kew, where experts will help you (if they are still funded). At worst, you track down missing dates by scrubbing mossy tombstones.All this even before the internet.You could once have done much the same in the ancient world, and especially in bureaucraticEgypt. The life of the famous poet and librarian Callimachus? The city archives of his birthplaceCyrene, personnel records of the royal library in Alexandria where he was cataloguer, taxaccounts, cadasters, property registers, notaries’ papers, family archives – beyond a doubt, allthese once existed, written on scrolls and well able to survive in the bone-dry climate. All arelong since scattered or turned to ash as surely as his dear friend Heraclitus (“They told me,Heraclitus, they told me you were dead”). What we do still have, what still survives the ravagesof invasion, fire, damp, worms, and that mortal enemy of the past, a shortage of storage space(off-site repositories, in other words), is the stuff of papyrology – the study of records onperishable materials, notably papyrus (the early equivalent of paper), from the ancient and earlymedieval world, c500 bc to 800 ad.