The eighty-year-old Leiden Papyrological Insitute has a small but great collection
The Leiden Papyrological Institute celebrated its eightieth birthday on Monday 19 January. Its collection of papyri – including paper, potsherds, pieces of wood and even lead – covers the period from 300 B.C. until after 800 A.D. and is entirely of Egyptian origin. The institute’s anniversary is being celebrated with a permanent virtual exhibition.
Not at a university
The Greek specialist B.A. van Groningen and law historians M. David and J.C. van Oven founded the Leiden Papyrological Institute on 19 January 1935, after a curious donation of papyri was made by one E.P. Warren. He had attached a strange stipulation to his collection, stating that it could not be put in the hands of a government institute. This ruled out universities and libraries, though the reason for this stipulation was never discovered. In any case, it prompted the establishment of the institute as an independent foundation. For years, it was located on the Breestraat.
Going to University Library after all
The institute’s library was filled with books from the University Library, that eventually demanded that they were returned. ‘We replied with: fine, but then you’ll get the rest of the institute too,’ explained Dr Cisca Hoogendijk, a specialist in Greek papyrology associated with the institute. And that’s how the institute became embedded in the University Library after all, but as a foundation. Its eightieth anniversary was celebrated with a one-day exhibition that features some of their finest pieces, as well as with the launch of a permanent digital exhibition that can be found on the institute’s website.
A varied collection
Since its inception, the collection has grown through various donations and purchases. It doesn’t just consist of papyri fragments, but also includes potsherds, pieces of wood and a piece of lead. Paper and wood were very expensive in ancient Egypt, so many people resorted to writing on shards and stones. The collection also includes small slates – wooden tablets – that have been hollowed out on both sides. The hollowed out sections were filled with soft wax that could be engraved with a sharp pen (or stylo). The text recorded in the wax could be erased and replaced with another, while multiple tablets could be tied together with string to form a booklet.
Water and soot to form ink
The first ‘paper’ was made by weaving long strips of papyrus stems together in a crosswork pattern and pressing these together. The sticky plant juices acted as a binding agent. The resultant material is very sensitive to the weather; water, in particular, can severely damage papyri, which is why original materials have only been uncovered in desert areas such as Egypt. The ink used by ancient Egyptians was made by mixing water and soot, which proved to be a very durable mixture; in later periods, it also became common to add natural gum to the ink. For writing materials, the authors of Greek texts relied on pens made from reeds tipped by a nib – comparable to dip pen. Egyptian texts were written with a brush, which meant that the author would have to ensure that his hand didn’t touch the paper.
Development of handwriting
Cisca Hoogendijk is an enthusiastic narrator. She shows us how handwriting – originally consisting of small drawings – continued to develop, becoming more and more abstract and beginning to exhibit a rounder style. She explains why the various languages that can be found on their papyri continued to consist regardless of who ruled Egypt. After Alexander the Great, the country was to be ruled by the Greeks, the Romans and eventually the Arabs. She also explains how the papyri can help us to understand the daily lives of the Egyptians. Many transactions, including marriages, loans and purchases, were documented to give them legal protection. It would have been common for the illiterate to approach someone who was able to write. And of course the ever-popular practice of levying taxes required a detailed administration.
Thanks to a recent bequest, the Leiden Papyrological Institute and the scholars studying ancient papyri can expand their activities throughout the next five years. This means more lectures can be organised, while the institute can also participate in various workshops and in the LUCL Summer School. But even without that windfall, there’s plenty of work for the papyrologists to focus on in the coming years; it has been calculated that it will take all the papyrologists of the world another thousand years to decipher all the papyri that have been unearthed. And new discoveries are being made all the time.
The Leiden Papyrological Institute does not have its own professor and is instead part of Egyptology. It provides courses for various programmes, including Greek and Latin Languages and Cultures, Ancient Cultures of the Mediterranean (including Egyptology), Religion Studies and even for the Leiden Law School. Many of the texts focus on judicial subjects, which law historians find very interesting. Annually, it provides education for about forty to fifty students.