Monday, September 30, 2013


Maria Serena Funghi, Gabriella Messeri, Cornelia Eva Römer (ed.), Ostraca greci e bilingui del Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (O.Petr.Mus.). (3 vols.) Papyrologica Florentina, 42. Firenze: edizioni Gonnelli, 2012. Pp. lxxx, 849; 1 DVD. ISBN 9788874680375. €250.

Reviewed by Maria Lauretta Moioli, Università degli Studi di Milano (

Version at BMCR home site


Maria Serena Funghi, Gabriella Messeri and Cornelia Eva Roemer, three international authorities in papyrological studies, present this impressive three-volume collection of texts on potsherds and stone flakes.

The work is remarkable for its thoroughness and for the exemplary research method adopted. A word on the edition's thoroughness. The collection publishes all the Greek texts on potsherds housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (University College London). They consist of 796 Greek texts – including some bilingual texts, some Demotic Greek and Coptic Greek texts and two Latin ones – 1 all written on ostraca, a material that often presents difficulties in reading and, even more so, interpretion. The ostraca found in the Flinders Petrie Collection have crossed the history of Papyrological Studies, so to speak: the first 35 ostraca were published by Ulrich Wilcken in 1899, a few Coptic ones were published by Walter Ewing Crum in 1902 (and more in 1939). The majority of them – 476 texts – were then edited by John Gavin Tait in 1930. Every edition reflects the conditions under which it was published and the inevitable limitations each period experiences. Closer to the present time, a few more texts only were published until, early in the last decade, the project of the aforementioned authors and their working group (on this more at the end) began – a ten-year labor leading to the present edition.

The editors have sought out and re-examined all the collection's Greek pieces. Working on the originals has enabled them to improve former readings, join texts from scattered pieces, group similar texts (as written in the same hand or coming from the same milieu), and present more than 200 texts that had remained unpublished because deemed either illegible or too damaged or non-Greek.

In recent years, access to the complete catalogue on the Museum's website has greatly facilitated the cataloguing and deciphering of the texts, but only autopsy and the slow work of deciphering could have led to the present edition. The publication also marks a milestone in regard to the method adopted in the study of the texts. The editors have gathered a team of experts from different disciplines, including demotists and archaeologists, in order to offer a complete study of the artefacts under examination. The three volumes published in the Papyrologica Florentina Series (that has already given many valuable instruments to Papyrology) offer an impeccable and rich edition, supported by texts, translations, apparatus, notes, bibliography, and technical description. Introductions and commentaries expand, where necessary, into brief monographs. The indexes and a DVD providing the photograph of each published ostracon complete the work. This edition proves once again that ostraca, the most challenging of papyrological sources, can yet disclose many useful pieces of information concerning Graeco-Roman history and culture. 2

The present edition allows all scholars interested in Greek sources – whether historians, philologists or literati – to easily access the texts in their entirety, as Stephen Quirke, Curator of the Petrie Museum, writes in the chapter devoted to the history of the collection's Greek ostraca (p. xxxiii). The bibliographies provided for each single text allow an easy and detailed reconstruction of editorial procedures, namely previous editions (if there have been any), amendments, and the most important citations in secondary literature. An analytical reading reveals the monumental nature of the bibliographic research undergone, an achievement that the list in the Introduction (pp. lxxiii ff.) fails to acknowledge since it is limited to the works quoted in short form.

In accordance with the rules of papyrological editions, ostraca are divided into two main sections: literary and paraliterary texts; documentary texts from the Ptolemaic to the Byzantine period, and lastly two Latin fragments. Within these two great chronologically ordered groups the documents are arranged according to category: shipping receipts, taxes, accounts, lists, memoranda.

Ascertaining the texts' geographical origin was another challenging task for the editors. In short, most texts comes from Upper Egypt, from the Theban district – the caravan routes from Koptos towards the harbours of Myos-Hormos and Berenike on the Red Sea are well-known.3 A small group, titled Warehouse Notes, comes from Oxyrhynchus. In some cases the origin may be inferred from internal evidence, while in others it may be found in excavation notes made by Petrie himself, or it may also have been ascertained by former studies. Unfortunately, the provenance of many ostraca is still unknown, and so is the context of their discovery and acquisition, which is to say, whether they were purchased or dug out. As Stephen Quirke writes (pp. xxxiii ff.), the way of proceeding in a pioneering age such as Petrie's 4 radically differs from that of the present-day, especially when the finds were written materials. In those years of major discoveries of Egyptian architecture and art, written materials of seemingly humble and fragmentary nature like ostraca were given little importance and they were catalogued alongside many similar materials simply as Objects of Daily Use.

Now a closer look to the volumes. It must be noted that the republication of previously published ostraca offers in most cases an improved reading and interpretation – the extent of the improvements, however, forbids further treatment here. Part I includes the editors' Introduction, the history of the Petrie Museum collection of Greek ostraca by Stephen Quirke, a technical introduction to pottery and amphorae manufacturing by Lavinia Pesi, which also explains also the research method adopted in each piece's description; tables of concordance and bibliographical abbreviations. These are followed by literary texts, nos. 1-72: fragments of the Old and New Testament, some liturgical pieces, fragments of the Iliad and the Menandri Sententiae, various school exercises and dubia; then documentary texts from the Ptolemaic period, nos. 73-111.

Part II collects various documentary texts from the Roman era, nos. 112-527. The most striking texts are a substantial group from the early Imperial period, nos. 112-206, belonging to the so-called archive of Nikanor – a camel driver and owner of a transport company working from Koptos to Myos-Hormos and Berenike. Back in 1931, while reviewing Tait's edition, Michael Rostovtzeff had already studied these documents' historical context in order to reconstruct the trading activities in Eastern Egyptian Desert area towards the Red Sea, Arabia and India. The work of the editors in collaboration with Dominic Rathbone has made it possible, for the first time, to check all the originals, thus improving their reading, 5 and to better understand the characters involved in the trade, including Nikanor himself, his relatives, his carriers, his customers, as well as the comings and goings of his goods. According to surviving receipts, the goods transported most often were wheat and wine. 6

Texts nos. 207-527 consist of tax receipts of all sorts: temples'balaneutikon, geometria, laographia, chomatikon and still others; receipts from the public granary, grain receipts, letters, accounts, lists. A separate group (nos. 439-465) comprises those ostraca that go under the name of Warehouse Notes, found by B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt in Oxyrhynchus during the 1904-5 diggings. Some unpublished texts are added to the 12 previously published ones, and the notes' function is also investigated – they were of use to the warehouse manager in particular. The subject of these notations were the kyklia identified as either wool balls or bobbins, (according to the definition given by D. Hagerdon accepted by the Editors 7). Part III comprises pieces from nos. 528 to 796, from the Byzantine period (5th-8th centuries). Along with the usual documents – receipts, accounts, lists of names – two other small archives are worth mentioning: that of Theopemptos and Zacharias (nos. 528-552, from Hermonthis, 7th century) and that of Psyros (nos. 569-574, from Dscheme, 7th-8th centuries. 8) Ostracon no. 677, consisting of seven lines of illegible writing, is of particular interest because it is considered a fake.

The work ends with a series of texts similar to but not quite the same as ostraca, including dipinti, graffiti, and a group of Descripta, texts that present writings that can no longer be read. Likewise, the two Latin texts that close the collection are so fragmentary that their content cannot be ascertained.

The editing project has been funded by Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and supported by the Petrie Museum, which hosts the collection. Given the difficulties that research in ancient studies is facing nowadays, the scale of the present project and the involvement of several young scholars are especially noteworthy. Alongside the three main editors – Maria Serena Funghi, Gabriella Messeri, Cornelia Eva Römer – collaborators in the research project include: Giuseppina Azzarello, Valentina Capuozzo, Cristina Carusi, Gianluca Casa, Teresa De Robertis, Donatella Erdas, Laura Giuliano, Antonio Lopez Garcia, Herwig Maehler, Francesca Maltomini, Carlo Pernigotti, Lavinia Pesi, Stefano Zamponi.


1.   The four Greek-Coptic ostraca are literary texts (testamentary texts, a school exercise), whereas the eight Greek-Demotic fragments are documentary texts. Coptic words have not been indexed. Four texts (nos. 153, 161, 164, 185) have a Latin subscription.
2.   The importance of ostraca in revealing new details about daily life in Egypt and the Graeco-Roman Near East is confirmed by the increasing number of diggings currently taking place in Egypt and elsewhere: the number of newly discovered inscribed postherds is very high (higher than that of papyri) and they are likely to offer a precious source of study material. On this aspect of papyrology and on new perspectives opened up by it see Roger S. Bagnall, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East (University of California 2011), especially chap. 6.
3.   Koptos is now known as Qift, Myos-Hormos is now known as Quseir al Qadim, Berenike corresponds to modern Medinet el-Haras.
4.   Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie worked in Egypt from 1880 to 1924 and has been rightly identified as the father of modern Egyptology. The Museum dedicated to him, where his entire collection of ostraca has been placed, was established as a teaching resource back in 1892. See the Petrie Museum.
5.   Ostraca suffer from the passing of time: after being removed from the archaeological context that enabled their conservation for millennia, they undergo a process of decay and the writing begins to fail. It often happens that photographs of ostraca taken immediately after their discovery offer a clearer reading than the postherds as they appear now. Therefore, as Gabriella Messeri and Dominic Rathbone observe (II, p. 146), it is sometimes difficult to decipher now what Tait could read with certainty. On the decay of ostraca in British museums see two notes of historical nature: Marcel Hombert, "La détérioration des ostraca," Chronique d'Egypte 8 (1933), 298; Harold Idris Bell, "Note on the treatment and preservation of ostraca from Egypt," Chronique d'Egypte 10 (1935), 133-137.
6.   Among the transported goods worth mentioning are an unspecified pharmakon and purple. Unfortunately the documents do not reveal the nature of the pharmakon (whether a medicine or a dye). As for the purple, a new reading reveals that there is no mention of it in O.Petr.Mus. 172.4, while a purple trader is mentioned in no. 529. Another unidentified object appears in the no. 196, among various goods, there is a salousion brasimon.
7.   In the no. 458 the kyklia are mentioned together with the oktasoupha and the trisoupha: it is impossible to determine if the soupha (another rare and obscure word) is a measure unit or a type of the ball.
8.   Hermonthis is now Armant, Dscheme or Djeme is known as Memnonia in Greek sources. They were other centres of the Theban urban agglomeration.

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