DATABASE: Reading the Reeds

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Science  24 Mar 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5768, pp. 1685
DOI: 10.1126/science.311.5768.1685b

Modern parents will recognize the sulky tone in a letter from a 2nd century C.E. Egyptian responding to a scolding from his mother and sister. The writer, Ptolemaios, first swears “by all the gods that I have done nothing of what has been said,” then pouts that his family ignored him even though he “was kicked by a horse and was in danger of losing my foot [or even] my life.” That's one tidbit from the Advanced Papyrological Information System, a master catalog of more than 23,000 papyri—texts inscribed on paper made from flattened reeds—and other ancient writings. The artifacts reside at 10 institutions, including Columbia University and the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. Scrawled in 13 languages on everything from wooden tablets to banana leaves, the texts date back as far as the 2nd millennium B.C.E. More than half of them have digital images, and about one-fourth provide English translations. You can browse official and private documents such as trial transcripts and contracts—complete with fine print.

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