The Art of Reading Documentary Papyri (08/23/2016)

This week Drs. Lincoln Blumell, Jeffrey Fish, Kevin Funderburk, and Dirk Obbink (head of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project) came to OKC to study some of the papyri in the MOTB Museum Collections. Josephine, the responsible curator, hosted their visit whereas Brian and I provided some assistance.

One of the things we did was assist Dr. Funderburk in his work on a documentary papyrus. Brian took notes with his laptop while I helped by writing down Kevin’s first rough transcription. During our work, Kevin gave me an introduction to the fragment’s script and how to approach such documents. The script was a Byzantine cursive, which is a completely different writing style than what we would encounter in literary papyri. Due to the difficulty of the informal script—and often because of the condition of the papyrus—the recognition of certain formulations that come up regularly in such texts is essential to deciphering their content. When you can only read the first few letters of a word, knowledge of typical patterns may help fill the blanks. A useful resource for this is, where a huge number of documentary papyri is accessible online. When you come to a damaged or illegible part, you can use this tool to search for some of the readable words or phrases around the problematic passage. If you are lucky, the search engine will present you with parallels from other papyri that might help decipher your piece.

Kevin F. gave me some nice challenges with this. He would ask me to read the part of a line and say something like, “Oh, that one is sooo easy,” while I was struggling with its illegible scrawl. Brian had lots of fun watching us. He kept saying that this was the kind of “school” everybody who approached this area of papyrology had to go through. When he was at the Papyrological Institute in Heidelberg, scholars would “torment” their students in the same way. Kevin F. was, however, a good and patient teacher, and I increasingly got accustomed to the script.

What we found about the content of this piece was quite interesting: a father is worried that his children may fight over their heritage after his death and, therefore, tries to encourage an agreement between them. I guess some reasons for trouble are as old as mankind.

Apart from That

After four (!) weeks here in the US, I finally received my debit card. The process was quite annoying, even though it seemed to be going smoothly—especially at the beginning. Getting my Social Security number, for instance, was easy. So coming from that experience, I thought opening a bank account and getting a debit card would go rather smoothly, too. However, the bank clerk who set up the account forgot to order my card.  I only learned about this when—after waiting desperately for the card for a week—I finally called the bank to ask them about it. Of course, they felt very bad for my inconveniences and would do everything to expedite the process for me. So now, only one additional week later I finally got my debit card. Yet I am not entirely sure whether this is a good or a bad thing, since David Trobisch, Director of Collections and my host here, has already told me that the beer would be on me now.

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