Papyrus for the 21st Century

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Science  20 Dec 1996:
Vol. 274, Issue 5295, pp. 2017
DOI: 10.1126/science.274.5295.2017c

A six-university consortium in the United States is launching a project to preserve, catalog, digitize, and put on the Internet thousands of fragments of papyrus documents from ancient Egypt.

The material includes a huge collection that has been stacked in boxes at the University of California, Berkeley, for almost a century. The documents were collected during an 1899 expedition to the Fayyum, in Western Egypt, where archaeologists found cemeteries containing hundreds of mummified crocodiles, a sacred beast in the area. The papyrus documents had been used to stuff and swaddle the animals. The scientists retrieved the papers and threw out most of the crocodiles.

Anthony S. Bliss, curator of the Berkeley collection, says the estimated 21,000 pieces are so fragile that few have ever been seen by the public. Now, with the aid of a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to the consortium, the collection will be rehabilitated. Papyrologist John Oates of Duke University says it should offer new insights about middle Egypt more than 2000 years ago. The crocodile stuffing was just “old waste paper” to the Egyptians, but it comprises a wide range of documents, from real estate and tax records to excerpts from Virgil.

Members of the consortium, the Advanced Papyrological Information System, met with computer experts this month to discuss how to standardize codes to link all the collections and, says APIS leader Roger Bagnall of Columbia University, “how to handle Greek over the Net.” The consortium includes Berkeley, Duke, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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