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Rare Papyrus Collection Offers Glimpse Into Egypt's Past

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
Posted September 29, 1999

Take a peek at Cal's rare papyrus collection, on display through Dec. 3, in the Bancroft Library.

A crew carefully escorted a five-foot, mummified crocodile across campus this week. It was placed, artfully wrapped in reeds, into the center of an exhibit of ancient papyri and artifacts uncovered 100 years ago in the Egyptian village of Tebtunis.

"Ancient Lives: The Tebtunis Papyri in Context" runs through Dec. 3 in Bancroft Library. The display focuses on the extensive but barely-touched papyrus collection, the largest in the United States, that dates back to the third century B.C.

The exhibit launches an interdisciplinary symposium drawing experts from around the world to debate how best to unlock the many remaining secrets of the Tebtunis papyri, once the world's premiere writing material made from stems of a now-extinct plant in Nile marshes.

"Documents tend to come alive if you work with them for a long period," said Arthur Verhoogt, The Bancroft Library's consulting papyrologist from the University of Leiden, Netherlands. Verhoogt has been studying the Tebtunis papyri since 1993, when he came to Berkeley to research his Ph.D.

Anthony Bliss, curator of the library's papyri collection, said he hopes the exhibit combining papyri with related artifacts will instill in viewers a sense of the fascinating historical context of the Tebtunis material, an appreciation for the topical borders it crosses, and motivate more research.

"It's not going to cure cancer, and it's not going to make gas prices go down," Bliss said of the further exploration. However, he and others such as Joan Knudsen, registrar for the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, are convinced that continuing Tebtunis research will serve multiple fields including literature, linguistics, history, religion, sociology and language.

The exhibit features papyri describing daily life thousands of years ago, as well as fragments of Homer's "Iliad" and a lost play by Sophocles displayed publicly for the first time. The display of papyri is intertwined with Hearst Museum contributions chosen from its approximately 1,800-piece Tebtunis collection. Museum offerings include a mummy portrait of a woman with coloring instructions in Greek; five silver coins featuring Nero, Vespasian, Anthony I and Cleopatra; reed pens; an ink pot still containing a bit of ink; and a wax writing tablet.

The museum also is loaning its limestone relief fragment from the Tebtunis temple. It shows a colored carving of the crocodile god Sobek.

Dramatic black-and-white photos of dust swirling around the white tents of the 1899 Tebtunis encampment of archeologists commissioned by the late Phoebe Hearst also are on display.

Alongside the crocodile is a large tin box filled with layer after layer of papyri packed between pages of British newspaper accounts of the Boer War. Bliss said there are three other boxes filled with the same promising papyri, and only five percent of The Bancroft Library collection has been investigated, studied, catalogued and preserved.

After the exhibition's formal opening, scholars from around the world gathered to discuss past and current research in the field and suggest directions for future studies.

Donald Mastronarde, chairman of the Classics Department and a financial supporters of the symposium, said he supports more research because of a debt to scholarship in general and to Phoebe Hearst for initiating the trek to the buried village where people farmed, raised livestock, worshipped at the temple and read today's "classics."

"If you dig something up, you're supposed to study, publish and make it available," Mastronarde said.

Only a fraction of the papyri collection -- about 1,600 of around 40,000 fragments -- has been photographed and digitally preserved for mounting on the Internet. Mastronarde and others would like to make the entire collection available that way, so experts at other institutions around the world can take a look and offer their analyses even if they can't examine the fragile papyri in person.

"That's the promise of the technology," said Bliss. "This is a way of putting the whole blessed city back together, in a sense."

Leaders of the Tebtunis effort want a full-time papyrus expert to dig into the project, as well as financing that will continue research when National Endowment for the Humanities funding expires next year. Research floundered when a massive restoration project was required to remove papyri from plastic casings that were damaging the collection.



September 29 - October 5, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 8)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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