Last Session


Friday 16th March 2018

Topic: Riches from rubbish tips: the Oxyrhynchus papyri

Chair: Dr Margaret Mountford

For the last Forum session of this term, we were delighted to welcome Dr Margaret Mountford, Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society.

Dr Mountford’s talk began with a description of the different materials used for inscriptions which have survived, and commented on the fact that the survival of various texts is perhaps only a fraction of what must have circulated throughout ancient Egypt and other ancient civilisations, and indeed does not necessarily provide a full account of the levels of literacy, the use of writing in personal or commemorative settings, and so on. It was also noted that there is a limitation of what certain materials would have been used for; thus the texts we find on stone tend to be statements intended to be read by passers by and/or particular audiences (divine or human), as opposed to less permanent materials which may have been for more ordinary, every day writings.

Examples of texts which have survived range from limestone and wooden tablets, ostraca and lead, to other natural materials including papyrus. Dr Mountford explained the process of making papyrus rolls in further detail, as well as again reinforcing the contrast in materials with the purpose or function of the text through examples such as the Bloomberg writing tablets from AD 65/70-80 which provide the earliest written reference to London (the Roman city of ‘Londinium’), and a collection of lead tablets known as the ‘Bath curse tablets’.

The ancient site of Oxyrhynchus was also considered in further detail; it was noted that it has historically been seen as an incredibly important site that was inhabited until Byzantine times, and offers a fantastic glimpse into the foreign occupation of Egypt through the hundreds of thousands of written records that were found in its ancient rubbish sites, with a mixture of Egyptian, Greek, Latin and Christian writings all discovered here. Initial excavations undertaken by Grenfell and Hunt in 1896-1897 and 1903-1907 were also funded by the EEF, which later became the EES. Work in both publication and conservation of the papyri has continued since, with the majority of the papyri now held in the Sackler Library at Oxford, and volume 83 of the publications currently in print!

Dr Mountford explained the classifications of the surviving papyri and highlighted some interesting examples which demonstrated various difficulties in comprehending the texts, including unknown provenances, the difficulty of dating through handwriting, and the importance of context if known. Some texts included personal letters of invitations and general correspondence, legal agreements and leases, medical/magical lists of ingredients which included a hangover cure, and ‘lists’ of entertainment events which included chariot races, acting, singing, processions and athletic displays! A particularly interesting example was a record of a fixed wrestling match, in which one wrestler had agreed to lose the match through a legal contract.

The talk was concluded with an insight into the history of the EES, and an explanation of the various sites throughout Egypt which the EES has excavated, from northern Egypt all the way down into Sudan. It was emphasised that EES is the principal British institution undertaking archaeological excavation in Egypt, in addition to the other fundamental work being carried out including education and teaching for the Ministry of Antiquities, the continued research and publication, and what is hoped for the future of EES.

From all of us at BE, we would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr Mountford for visiting us and providing this great insight into the Oxyrhynchus papyri!


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