Text in Context
Recontextualising the Papyri from Roman Soknopaiou Nesos / Dimê (Fayyum, Egypt)
- 2017 - 2019
- Cisca Hoogendijk
- NWO Internationalisation in the Humanities Grant
Leiden University, University of Michigan, University of Salento
This project has brought together an international group of papyrologists and archaeologists from Leiden, Ann Arbor and Lecce. Their joint research focusses on the 1931-1932 excavations by the University of Michigan. It includes the renewed study of the contents of the relevant papyri from Soknopaiou Nesos – a considerable part of the mainly Roman-era texts is still unpublished –, the renewed study of the other archaeological finds according to modern insights and with the help of new techniques, and the new study of the site’s archaeological documentation which is still kept in numerous boxes in the archives of the University of Michigan and the Kelsey Museum in Ann Arbor.
The results will be integrated with the extensive site documentation assembled by the ongoing excavations by the University of Salento (Lecce). The Soknopaiou Nesos papyri will thus be virtually placed back into their original archaeological setting so that a fuller picture emerges of the world in which the texts were written than could ever be obtained by the study of texts and excavation documentation in isolation.
Through the study of the papyri and their archaeological context, the project aims to set the agenda for further research in the nascent field of the materiality of written sources. The project will forge a network of world-class specialists in the field of Papyrology, Archaeology and Egyptology, and develop a large-scale research project on the broader topic of the materiality of written sources from Soknopaiou Nesos.
Work on the project has officially started on January 1, 2017 and will last for three years. Three plenary meetings of the project members are planned.
- hosted by University of Michigan and Kelsey Museum, Ann Arbor (September 2017)
- hosted by University of Salento (19-20 March 2019)
- hosted by Leiden University (planned for fall 2019)
The tasks are divided as follows: Hoogendijk (Leiden, organiser of the project) and Verhoogt (Ann Arbor) will focus on the textual and material aspects of the Greek documentary papyri from the Michigan excavation in 1931-32, while Capasso and Pellé (Lecce) study the literary papyri. Kaper (Leiden) will study the archaeological and social aspects of the Michigan excavation. Donker van Heel (Leiden) and Stadler (Würzburg, formerly in charge of the demotic papyri excavated by the Lecce mission) will focus on the textual and material aspects of the demotic papyri from the excavation. Wilfong (Michigan) is in charge of the documentation for the 1931-1932 Michigan excavations, while Haug (Michigan) facilitates research on the archives and oversees the digitizing of selected resources.
Capasso, Davoli, Caputo, Alfarano and Pellé will study, together with other collaborators, the archaeological excavations of Soknopaiou Nesos, comparing their own documentation with that of the 1931-1932 excavations of the University of Michigan. They are documenting with photos and drawings the objects in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the documentation and manuscripts concerning Dime in the University of Michigan.
In 2017 the project started with the Michigan colleagues sharing all the images of the unpublished papyri from the 1931-32 excavation on a dedicated project website with the other project participants; they added old excavation reports and old and modern lists of papyri and objects. Also, other archival material relating to the excavation and found in boxes in the Michigan archives is being read, selected, scanned and shared on this website (ongoing).
Deciphering and interpreting the unpublished documentary and literary papyri has started (it was decided to first focus on the Eastern part of the 1931-32 excavation). As a first result, Leiden student S. de Weger wrote the MA thesis (supervised by Hoogendijk) 'Streetwise in Soknopaiou Nesos: Unpublished Greek papyri from street II-200, Soknopaiou Nesos, Egypt' (October 2018).
The pottery and other objects found during the 1931-32 excavation in the Eastern and still housed in Michigan are studied by the Lecce colleagues, after their careful documenting of the original objects following the 2017 meeting in Ann Arbor.
Our Italian colleagues are also working on 3D-imaging of the Eastern part of the 1931-32 excavation site. (Compare their earlier virtual tour of Soknopaiou Nesos.)
Several presentations on the project were given:
- F.A.J. Hoogendijk, 'New Papyrology in Progress: The Case of Roman Soknopaiou Nesos' (Egypt) (Hoogendijk, University of Kent, 5 June 2018)
- F.A.J. Hoogendijk, 'Soknopaiou Nesos: Village of Priests' (Hoogendijk, Basel University, 9 Oct. 2018)
- P. Davoli – S. Alfarano – C. Caputo (in collaboration with T. Wilfong, S. Encina and B. Bazzani), 'Text and Context: Unpublished Materials from the University of Michigan Excavation at Dime' (Fayoum Symposium Cairo, 30 Oct. 2018)
- M. Capasso – N. Pellé, 'Text in Context: Some Unpublished Greek Literary Papyri from the University of Michigan 'Excavation at Dime' (Fayoum Symposium Cairo, 30 Oct. 2018)
Soknopaiou Nesos, modern Dimê, is situated in what is now called the Fayoum province of Egypt. Originally this was a region full of marshes, with a lake at its deepest point in the North-West (about 45 meters below sea level). Under king Ptolemy II (283-246 BCE), the region of the Arsinoite nome, as the Fayoum was then called in Greek, began to be reclaimed and changed into an important agricultural area centred around the capital city of Krokodilon Polis, which was later renamed Arsinoe after the wife of Ptolemy II.
The village of Soknopaiou Nesos was founded in the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period to the north of the lake (Lake Moeris after its Greek name, nowadays Birket Qarun), on the edge of the desert. It was built on a low hill with a flattened top at about 65 meters above the northern shore of the lake, at a distance of more than 2 kilometres from the lake shore. Since this hill was surrounded by desert sand and limestone rock there was not much fertile land in the direct vicinity, although some of the surrounding land to the west and north of the village was irrigated and used for the pasturage of sheep. For agriculture, many people who lived in Soknopaiou Nesos owned or leased land in neighbouring villages, as we learn from the papyri, also on the opposite side of the lake. The temple of Soknopaios was the religious, cultural and economic centre of the village, and many of its inhabitants were priests. Soknopaiou Nesos was at its prime during the Roman period. In the first half of the third century CE the village was deserted probably because of a combination of economical and climatological reasons.
Excavations of Soknopaiou Nesos
Long before scientific excavations started at the end of the 19th century, Egyptian farmers had carried away much of the top layers of the site of Soknopaiou Nesos as fertilizer. When it became clear that people were willing to pay money for ancient objects and papyri, they became the objects of (illegal) search. Many thousands of objects and papyri were sold on the antiquities market and spread out over many collections in Europe and beyond (of which only a part has been published to date). So much had been removed from the site during the last decade of the 19th century, that the famous British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt, who paid the site a short visit in 1900, remarked that “the town had been practically exhausted”. In the meantime, clandestine excavations continued and Friedrich Zucker from Berlin, who carried out a brief exploration in 1908/9 reported that the central part of the hill had been completely removed, so as to give the site the shape of a bowl.
Still, the archaeologists of the University of Michigan regarded Soknopaiou Nesos as interesting enough to re-start excavations there for one season in 1931-32, and in 2003 a new, modern excavation of especially the temple was started as The Soknopaiou Nesos Project under the leadership of Mario Capasso and Paola Davoli (University of Salento).
The temple is surrounded by a 15 meters high and thick temple wall, part of which is still standing. The village itself was surrounded by a wall, and divided into an eastern and a western part by the so-called dromos, a raised paved way leading to the entrance of the main temple.
The Michigan archaeologists, under the direction of Enoch Peterson, had been excavating for some years at the site of Karanis, a village further to the west. Because they needed material for comparison they decided to spend one season at Soknopaiou Nesos as well, and they chose two locations for digging, one in the Western area just South of the temple and one in the Eastern part of the village, where a larger building attracted the attention.
Old film footage of the Michigan excavations in 1931-32 was recently found by Sebastián Encina in the archives of the Kelsey Museum. He digitized and combined two film clips in the video below. We are grateful to Terry Wilfong and Michelle Fontenot for permission to show it on this page.
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‘Dime' and 'Temple Precinct at Dime' from untitled Kelsey Museum film footage, 1931 © The Kelsey Museum, University of Michigan
This excavation was published by Arthur Boak in Soknopaiou Nesos: The University of Michigan Excavations at Dimê in 1931-32 (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1935). According to the standards of the period the book contained separate publications of the topography and architecture (Peterson and Boak), of fifteen selected papyri (Boak), of the two inscriptions found (Boak) and of all 95 coins (Haatvedt). Some more Greek and a few Demotic papyri from the Michigan find were published afterwards by various scholars, but many objects and papyri still await their publication.
After the excavation, the movable objects and papyri were taken to Ann Arbor for study but, in accordance with an agreement with Egypt, most of the papyri were shipped back to Cairo in 1953. Before leaving Ann Arbor they were all professionally photographed; these black-and-white photographs are now digitised.
Furthermore, in the archives of Ann Arbor many boxes are found containing the original excavation reports, drawings and maps, journals, correspondence and accounts giving insight in the day-to-day events during the excavation. A representative selection of these documents is being digitised.
All the objects and papyri as well as the archival material form the basis for the project 'Text in Context': a renewed investigation of the excavation in 1931-32.
Organizer of the project; she will focus on the textual and material aspects of the Greek papyri from Soknopaiou Nesos.
Prof. Dr. Olaf E. Kaper: Professor of Egyptology at Leiden University.
He will study the archaeological and social aspects of the 1931-1932 excavation.
Together with Martin Stadler he will focus on the textual and material aspects of the Demotic papyri from Soknopaiou Nesos.
Prof. Dr. Arthur M.F.W. Verhoogt: Professor of Papyrology and Greek at the University of Michigan.
He will study Greek texts from Soknopaiou Neos in connection with the Michigan excavations on the site.
He is in charge of the documentation for the 1931-1932 Michigan excavations.
Dr. Brendan Haug: Archivist of the Papyrology Collection and Assistant Professor in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan
He will facilitate research on the archives and he will also oversee the digitizing of selected resources.
Prof. Dr. Mario Capasso, Professor of Papyrology and Director of the Archaeological Mission in Egypt of the University of Salento (Soknopaiou Nesos Project).
Prof. Dr. Paola Davoli, Associate Professor of Egyptology, who directs, with Prof. Capasso, the Soknopaiou Nesos Project of the Centro di Studi Papirologici of the University of Salento.
Dr. Clementina Caputo, Post-Doctoral Researcher in the Sonderforschungsbereich 933 -Materiale Textkulturen (TP A09), at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. She has been a member of the Dime excavation team since 2006.
Stefania Alfarano, PhD student at University of Salento – University of Vienna, Archaeologist involved in the Dimê excavations (Soknopaiou Nesos Project).
Capasso, Davoli, Caputo, Pellé and Alfarano will study, together with other collaborators, the archaeological excavations of Soknopaiou Nesos, comparing their own documentation with that of the 1931-1932 excavations of the University of Michigan. They are documenting with photos and drawings the objects in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the documentation and manuscripts concerning Dime in the University of Michigan. Capasso and Pellé will study the literary papyri from 1931-32 season.
Prof. Dr. Martin Stadler, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Würzburg and formerly in charge of the demotic papyri excavated by the Lecce mission.
Together with Koen Donker van Heel he will focus on the textual and material aspects of the Demotic papyri from Soknopaiou Nesos.
- Papyrological Institute, Leiden University
- Papyrology Collection of the Hatcher Graduate Library, University of Michigan Department of Classical Studies
- Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan
- Soknopaiou Nesos Project, Centro di Studi Papirologici, Università del Salento
- Virtual Tour of Soknopaiou Nesos (Università del Salento)
- Past Field Projects of the University of Michigan
- Publications of Early Michigan Excavations (Open Access)
- Soknopaiu Nesos nach den demotischen Quellen (Universität Würzburg, project closed 2006)
- Publications of the Archaeological Mission of the University of Salento in Soknopaiou Nesos (most in Open Access)