Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.04

Ludwig Koenen, Jorma Kaimio, Maarit Kaimio, Robert W. Daniel (ed.), The Petra Papyri II. American Center of Oriental Research Publications, 7.   Amman:  American Center of Oriental Research, 2013.  Pp. xix, 195; 16 p. of plates.  ISBN 9789957854362.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Lajos Berkes, Universität Heidelberg, Zentrum für Altertumswissenschaften, Institut für Papyrologie (

In 1993 approximately 140 carbonized papyrus rolls were found during the excavations of Petra in a room next to a Byzantine church. They turned out to be Greek documents dating from the 6th century CE mostly related to the person and family of Theodoros son of Obodianos, thus probably forming his family archive. The find comprises various kinds of documents: tax receipts, requests for transfer of taxations, divisions of property, etc. These texts give a glimpse into the life of a family belonging to the local elite of 6th-century Petra and form one of the most important documentary finds for this period outside of Egypt. The handling, unfolding, conservation, and imaging of the carbonized rolls was a challenging task carried out with remarkable expertise by the Finnish team. The publication of the Petra papyri that could be restored and read has been carried out as a team effort by scholars mainly from the universities of Helsinki and Michigan. Volumes I (2002), III (2007) and IV (2011) have been published so far, and the book under review is the belated second volume. The series will conclude with a fifth volume.

The book contains the edition of a single document, P.Petra II 17 (Inv. 10), a division of property among three brothers, with extensive introduction and commentary. From an original roll of 320 cm, fragments of the middle part are preserved measuring 26.5 x 270 cm and containing 233 lines written transversa charta. The roll was made by joining together papyrus sheets (kollemata). The average distance between the joins is 14.5 cm. The document was written by a professional scribe who sometimes diverges from classical orthography (e.g. iotacism occurs frequently). Later corrections, probably written by other hands, also appear. The mention of a date and place, the presentation of the parties involved, and some introductory phrases are missing at the beginning. Some fragments that have not been placed may come from this section. The preserved part lists the properties allotted to the brothers and ends with juristic formulas. The document must have ended with other similar formulas and signatures, although it is likely that this last sheet was detached in antiquity before the papyrus was rolled for the last time. The editors point out, however, that we cannot be certain that the document contained subscriptions, since it might have been a penultimate draft kept for private purposes.

The division of property was made among three brothers: Bassos, Epiphanios, and Sabinos. The property consists of buildings, vineyards, and grainfields in the village Serila, in an area called Ogbana, and in Petra; slaves are also mentioned. It is a reasonable assumption that the brothers divided the inheritance of one of their parents. The division of property was probably made beforehand and a casting of lots decided which brother received which share. It is difficult to establish the connections of our text to the archive of Theodoros, son of Obodianos. Nevertheless, since Bassos, which is the name of the eldest brother and of the brothers’ grandfather, is also the name of Theodoros’ maternal grandfather, the assumption is likely that the brothers belonged to Theodoros’ family. The possible mention of a lease dated 505/506 (although the year is restored) and prosopographical considerations suggest that the document was set up ca. 505-537 or—according to a less cautious approach—perhaps ca. 505-520. P.Petra II 17 is thus one of the earliest, perhaps the earliest, document of the archive.

The volume starts with a preface, foreword, and bibliography (VII-XIX). These are followed by a long introduction (1-50), consisting of two longer studies—on the agricultural and architectural terms of the text (1-22) and on the Arabic topo- and oikonyms (23-48)—followed by a short note on possible survivals of ancient toponyms mentioned in the papyrus in the region of Wadi Musa (49-50). The main part of the book (51-165) is occupied by an introduction to the document (51-90), Greek text (91-96), translation (96-99), commentary (99-152), discussion of the unplaced fragments (152-164), and a concordance to the line numbering of the text mentioned in earlier publications (165). The volume ends with indices to P.Petra I-IV (167-194), plates (195-212), a concordance of the publication numbers with the inventory numbers of P.Petra I-IV (213), and illustration credits (215).

The first chapter of the introduction explains meticulously the exact meaning of the specific terms occurring in the document (ἀναβαθμέων, θημοβολών and πυργοφρούριον are addenda lexicis). The use of literary, documentary, legal and archaeological sources gives a neat picture of what we can know about the terms related to dwellings and agriculture in the document. The second part analyses the Arabic topo- and oikonyms from a linguistic point of view. This is one of the most interesting features of the text, since there is very little documentary evidence for pre-Islamic Arabic language and other Petra papyri have yielded but a few Arabic words in Greek transliteration. Most of these words have an Arabic origin, but borrowings from Aramaic are also attested. It is likely that Aramaic was spoken alongside Arabic in Petra. Furthermore an earlier Canaanite substratum can also be identified. The chapter focuses on phonology and problems of transcribing Arabic into Greek, and gives etymologies for the toponyms and oikonyms when possible. A more detailed linguistic study of the Arabic words found in the Petra papyri will be published in the fifth volume of the series. The short note at the end of the introduction suggests that, based on interviews with locals of the Petra area, perhaps five toponyms survived from antiquity into modern times.

The edition of the document makes a similarly thorough impression as the preceding chapters. The physical format, the handwriting, the persons involved, the dating and structure of the document, the landed property, dwellings, and finally the balance of the division are discussed painstakingly in the introduction to the text. It is especially useful that the position of the vineyards and grain fields is illustrated by charts and that the shares of the division are summarized in a tabular format. The edition of the document corresponds to the high standards of the introduction: one has the impression that the editors have extracted every bit of information that could be gathered from this very difficult text. The possible readings of difficult words or even letters and the possible supplements are always carefully weighed against each other in the long commentary. The readings can be trusted in general, which is fortunate, since the plates containing reproductions from the papyrus are often much less legible than the original—as the editors themselves admit. The notes discuss not only difficult readings, but comment also on the content and often on linguistic problems as well. The meticulous explanations sometimes seem to be too cautious and repetitive, but the reader will certainly find every bit of information in the commentary he or she needs to understand the relevant passages. The same applies to the presentation of a selection of unplaced fragments: the reader who has not worked for long years on the papyrus may find some detail superfluous.

The overall appearance of the book is splendid and typos are very seldom. Some minor points of criticism, however, can be made. One could question the editorial decision not to represent diaeresis either in the transcription or in the apparatus. BGU II 377, mentioned on p. 14 does not date to the 7-8th century, but to the period of the Persian occupation of Egypt (619-629).1 It is strange that the fact that ἀναβαθμέων is an addendum lexicis is pointed out in the commentary to ll. 36-39 (p. 105), but not in the introduction, where the meaning of the term is explained in detail (p. 2). Also, the etymology of θημοβολών in notes to ll. 43-44 (p. 107) is redundant, since it has already been discussed in the introduction (p. 10) - to which the commentary itself refers. Similar inconsistencies and repetitions can be found in other passages of the commentary as well. In the notes to ll. 155-157 (p. 134) the term δωρεαστικόν is discussed and a reference is made to three papyri attesting to the word. Two of the three examples, SB V 5609 and SB V 5610 (from 767/768 and not simply the 7-8th century, cf. BL V, 97) come from Greek dockets of Coptic documents. In fact, Coptic documents— mainly, but not exclusively, child donations from late eighth-century Thebes—attest to this term amply.2 A reference to this fact might have been useful. Similarly, Coptic divisions of property could also have been included in the list of similar documents from Egypt (p. 54/n. 14), cf. e.g. CPR IV 179-184. P.Herm. 64 mentioned in the commentary to ll. 162-163 (p. 135) can be dated to the 7-8th century instead of the 7-9th (cf. BL V, 46).3

These minor points of criticism by no means affect the overall high quality of this edition. The decipherment and interpretation of this remarkable document was a similarly arduous task as those of the other Petra papyri and was accomplished with the same professionalism as in the previous volumes. The scholarly world can be grateful to the editors for making this extraordinary document available for further study.


1.   See BL VIII, 26 and the recent re-edition: Patrick Sänger-Dieter Weber, Der Lebensmittelhaushalt des Herrn Saralaneozan Šahr-Ālānyōzān. Neuedition von zwei Speiselisten und einem Geschäftsbrief aus dem sassanidischen Ägypten, APF 58 (2012) 81-96, 82-90.
2.   See Hans Förster, Wörterbuch der griechischen Wörter in den koptischen dokumentarischen Texten (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 148), Berlin-New York 2002, s.v. δωρεαστική, δωρεαστικόν and δωρεαστικός.
3.   The reference to solidi minus 6 carats could point to a date in the 6-7th century and a Hermopolite provenance (no image has been published); cf. Klaus Maresch, Nomisma und Nomismatia. Beiträge zur Geldgeschichte Ägyptens im 6. Jahrhundert n. Chr. (Papyrologica Coloniensia XXI), Opladen 1994, 162-169.

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