Digital Images of Cairo Papyri and the Writing Hands of the Zenon Archive

The imaging of ancient documents is without doubt one of the most exciting recent advances in papyrology and related fields. The 'virtual' collections becoming available on CD ROM and via the Internet make possible types of research previously impractical, and accordingly allow progress toward more comprehensive understanding of the societies which produced the original texts. Another major step in the development of these resources is now being undertaken. A unique collection of slides and photographs of the several thousand published papyri in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo was created in the 1970s and 1980s under the auspices of the Association Internationale de Papyrologues and UNESCO. These photographs are now being digitised at the CSAD as part of its Mellon-funded 'Script, Image and the Culture of Writing in the Ancient World' programme. The images of the Cairo papyri will lend themselves to a wide variety of academic uses. This short article reports on one specific application.

Fig. 1: P.Cair.Zen. 1.59129: Zenon's autograph.

Digital images are a crucial resource for analysis of ancient archives which have been dispersed after modern discovery. The Zenon Archive of the 3rd century BC is perhaps the outstanding example of an ancient bibliographical unit which has had such a fate. In the richness and variety of its contents this is arguably the most important single archive from the Graeco-Roman period yet recovered. It is also one of the largest, amounting to nearly 2,000 documents (two thirds of all published papyri from the third century). Accumulated between ca. 261 and 229 BC (it was no longer in the eponymous Zenon's custody after ca. 239), the Archive was recovered in the 1910s on the site of the ancient village of Philadelphia in the Fayum. It was split up and sold piecemeal, and is now distributed among a number of collections. There are major holdings at Ann Arbor, Florence, Giessen, London, Manchester, and New York, while approximately half of it is in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo. The dispersal has involved certain benefits, but has also retarded systematic study of the Archive.

The difficulty of access to groups of related documents separated in different collections especially inhibits comparison of writing hands and evaluations of authorship. Before the advent of imaging technology photographs were rare. The resulting problems were pinpointed in 1981 by W. Clarysse in the introduction to his 'Prosopography' of the Zenon Archive: 'A serious imperfection in our method derives from the scarcity of available photographs which might have allowed identifications by means of the handwriting. The only scholar who had access to several major collections was C.C. Edgar, but even he had often to rely on his memory for texts which were widely separated. A photographic documentation of all Zenon papyri would not only allow us to make new joins, it would be a fresh source for prosopographical research.' (W. Clarysse, P.L.Bat. 21, 273-4).

The prime obstacle to the decipherment of the "hidden" texts is the fact that the traces of letters in the wood are barely discernible, so faint as to be almost indistinguishable from natural cracks, grain and other surface irregularities. A second and still greater difficulty arises from the fact that the wax was re-used many times, and each time the new text left a new layer of traces on the wood beneath. The Novgorod triptych codex is therefore a palimpsest. However, by contrast with "normal" palimpsests (which typically consist of two - or at any rate of very few - layers of superimposed text), the Novgorod codex consists of multiple layers. We can term it a "hyperpalimpsest". Trying to disentangle all the layers and decipher the texts on the Novgorod codex is therefore rather like trying to disentangle and decipher the layers of text on an old and much-used sheet of carbon paper. Nor can one separate the layers on the basis of handwriting (as one might in the case of a classical palimpsest) since the handwriting on all layers is identical.

A full photographic record would open up many further possibilities. The present writer is investigating individual preference and linguistic diversity among the large number of authors whose writing is represented in the Archive. This study focuses on the linguistic habits of both particular individuals and social groups. To take an example, I am interested in the relationship between idiolect and aspectual choice, as manifested in these non-literary texts. The purely linguistic issues are challenging enough, but establishing securely who wrote what and how an author's message found its way onto papyrus is another central concern of the project. Assessing the frequency with which named authors wrote their own documents and evaluating the role of scribes are key problems.

The potential for progress through examination of handwriting is evident in the achievements of earlier generations of Zenon specialists. Edgar, T.C. Skeat, and others have identified a number of probable autographs of named authors among the private documents. Most familiar of all is that of Zenon himself, illustrated by P.Cair.Zen. 1.59129 (fig. 1). We also have the 'angular, individualistic script' of Hierokles (Skeat, P.Lond. 7.1941, introd.). This can be seen in P.Cair.Zen. 2.59148 (fig. 2). There is the 'large, untidy hand characteristic of Philinos' (Edgar, P.Ryl. 4.568, introd.), illustrated by P.Cair.Zen. 3.59522, and several more have been isolated as well. Some of these may be the hands of regular amanuenses. We shall never know for certain, though in cases like that of Zenon the preservation of assumed autographs in drafts and dockets leaves little doubt about the identifications. We can at least speak (as does Edgar) of 'characteristic' hands of particular authors. For my purposes these are highly significant, offering a link to an individual writer.

Meanwhile, there are various authors (including all three just mentioned) whose documents are written in more than one hand. This fact demonstrates the employment of scribes - presumably both common and a necessity for illiterate persons. Where scribes are involved, it is necessary to keep an open mind on whose linguistic preferences - the named author's, the scribe's, or those of both - find their way into the text. I shall not pursue this issue here, except to note that linguistic analysis may be able to show that scribes are copying directly from dictation, or perhaps from written drafts. The Latin letters of Claudius Terentianus from the 2nd century AD represent such a case. Written in different hands over a period of years, they show linguistic unity sufficient to prove that Terentianus dictated them (J.N. Adams, The Vulgar Latin of the Letters of Claudius Terentianus (P.Mich. VIII, 467-72), 3, 84).

Fig. 2: P.Cair.Zen. 2.59148: Hierokles' handwriting.

The implications of handwriting analysis for my exploration of personal written styles in the Archive will already be obvious. A fuller discussion may be found in my paper 'Orality, Greek Literacy, and Early Ptolemaic Papyri', in C.J. Mackie (ed.), Oral Performance and its Context, 195-208. In short, examining the range of writing hands and where possible identifying or confirming those hands which are characteristic of particular authors are absolute necessities. They will allow a linguistic analysis with great potential for developing our knowledge of ancient Greek.

Many identifications will remain elusive. Palaeography is not an exact science and handwriting will not offer all the answers we seek. The chancery hands of the finance minister Apollonios' professional scribes used by several of the Archive's authors, for example, all look much the same. These scribes would each have had similar training. We should not expect much distinctive variation among their formal styles. Since more than one author was using the same scribes in Apollonios' offices, their hands may actually hinder accurate identification of authors in particular instances. Edgar's second thoughts about P.Cair.Zen. 1.59032 illustrate the dangers. Damage to the papyrus has mostly obliterated the author's name. Edgar at first suspected on the grounds of handwriting that Amyntas, a frequent correspondent of Zenon through the year 258-257, was the author, but the style seems to point in a different direction. Nevertheless, such obstacles should not cause dismay. Systematic assessment is likely to foster advances. And documents written in informal hands, which have a greater tendency toward 'individualistic' features, are especially promising. While definite proof will remain beyond our reach in many instances, in others we should be able to speak in terms of strong probabilities as to authorship on the basis of writing hands and complementary evidence.

What is certain is that digital imaging of the papyri provides an extremely valuable new research tool. In the specific case of the Zenon Archive significant progress has already been made. For example, the Advanced Papyrological Information System now allows internet-access to almost 250 published Zenon papyri held in North American collections. Similar digitizing initiatives are underway elsewhere. The special importance for Zenon studies of the CSAD's work on the Cairo collection is that it images in one operation almost half of the published documents of the Archive. In combination with the activity of other organizations this means that colleagues worldwide will soon be able to view approximately 90 per cent of the Zenon Archive with previously unimagined ease. Thus, the capacity for the systematic documentation which was advocated by Clarysse twenty years ago is moving much closer to reality. The new challenge then before us will be to exploit fully this remarkable resource.

Trevor Evans (University of Oxford and Macquarie University, Sydney)


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Created on Wednesday, 18 January, 2006: 11:14:45