Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.09.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.09.06

Katelijn Vandorpe, Willy Clarysse, Herbert Verreth, Graeco-Roman Archives from the Fayum. Collectanea Hellenistica - KVAB, 6.   Leuven; Paris; Bristol, CT:  Peeters Publishers, 2015.  Pp. 496.  ISBN 9789042931626.  €105.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christine Hue-Arcé, Strasbourg (

Though the study of archives has recently developed in the field of Egyptology and papyrology,1 this subject has seen more publications on modern Egyptological archives.2 The study of ancient Egyptian and Greek archives remains less common, and most of the time focused on a specific archive,3 and hardly ever on the archives of a large area such as the Fayum. Therefore, Katelijn Vandorpe, Willy Clarysse and Herbert Verreth—along with the twelve contributors of this book—have produced a most impressive and welcome work by reconstructing not one, but 145 archives from the Fayum, dating from the Ptolemaic period to the 4th century AD. In parallel, the presentations of the archives have been uploaded on Trismegistos, the online database dedicated to the texts from Late Period Egypt.4

This publication arises from the Papyrus Archives Project, started in 2002 at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), whose intention was to “gather papyrus and ostraca archives from Graeco-Roman and Late Antique Egypt, and provide descriptions downloadable as pdf on the Trismegistos website” (p. 13), and which had already produced a similar volume for the village of Pathyris.5

The book consists of two main parts: an introduction (pp. 15-30), and then an individual presentation for each of the 145 archives of the Fayum (pp. 31-455). It also includes indices and concordances (pp. 456-496).

The introduction presents all of the keys to understanding the process of reconstruction. The authors define an archive as the “deliberate collection of papers in antiquity by a single person, family, community (e.g., of priests) or around an office”; in this definition, an archive must be composed “of at least three texts, not two, because, for instance, Demotic sales were usually accomplished by means of two contracts and we consider two such interlinked title deeds not an archive” (p. 16). The major part of the authors’ work was to ascertain which texts are part of a same archive, through a series of criteria, including archaeological context and the prosopography, which were combined with museum archaeology (i.e. tracing the route of the papyri and their date of acquisition by collections).

An important point pertains to the naming of the archives: some new archives had to be named, while others needed to be renamed since their common attributed name was incorrect. Therefore, the authors (re)name the archives according to their “last owner […], after [their] most important archive holder or after the institution that kept the papers” (p. 18). These criteria provide a clear and immediate view of the principal person or institution that held the documents. Yet, when archives have been renamed, there is no clear indication in the individual record of the archive (see below)—the information can be found only in the description, which is impractical for the reader wishing to identify an archive easily. Trismegistos is most helpful on this aspect since, after the principal designation, the variants of the archive’s name are indicated.6

The authors have established a typology of the archives, built from those proposed by E. Seidl, Pieter W. Pestman, Alain Martin, Marie-Françoise Boussac and Katelijn Vandorpe. The archives are thus divided in three main categories: first, private archives, including private, family, and professional archives; then, the official archives, including those of a government office, and an official (mixing official and private papers); finally, the miscellaneous archives, including temple, library, tax receipts and lawsuit archives. This typology provides a clear view of the different archives in the Fayum, and will prove most helpful for researchers looking for specific categories of documents. In a useful reminder, the authors underline that “it is not always obvious to attribute an archive to one of the above categories” (p. 18): indeed, the identification of the nature of an archive can change according to the finding of new documents pertaining to it. The documents have also been classified according to their link with the archive they belong to: incoming documents (“addressed to or destined for the archive holder or his next of kin”), internal documents (“not meant to leave the archive”), and outgoing documents (documents “written by the archive holder”, and thus “not expected in his archive”) (p. 19).

The second section of the introduction provides valuable insight into the Fayum finds and archival research (pp. 20-30). This part includes a presentation of the contexts in which the archives were found—when the context is known thanks to archaeological records. The authors note three main contexts: archives found in a residential area, in a temple area, and in a cemetery area (the last category including the stuffed crocodiles and the papyri discovered in cartonnage). The authors then address illicit trade and archival research, and more particularly the part of papyrus cartels in the acquisition of documents from the Fayum at the beginning of the 20th century—with a focus on the texts bought by the Anglo-American cartel in the 1920s (for which a table is provided pp. 29-30). This part of the introduction helps us understand how the archives were disseminated—in antiquity with the cartonnages, and in the modern era with illicit trade —and how the documents were then acquired by collections across the world.

It should be noted that the introduction does not include a presentation and explanation of the organisation of the book and of each record, which could have been helpful for the reader.

The second part of the book comprises individual presentations for each of the 145 archives from the Fayum reconstructed by the authors. PDF files of these records have been uploaded to Trismegistos, and can be researched through their ArchID number or their name in the “Archives” tab of the website.7 The presentation of the archives is organised alphabetically by name, which is not specified in the introduction. Those who want to find a specific archive easily may refer to the concordance table at the end of the book and to the table of contents at its beginning.

Each archive is presented in the same standardised way. In a first part are included the name of the archive, its ArchID number in the Leuven database and on the Trismegistos website, the year it was recorded, and the scholar who contributed to it. Then comes the basic data on the archive: its place, date, language and material, the number of texts, the type of archive (personal, familial, professional), the collection in which it is contained, and finally the context of its find and/or acquisition, followed by a bibliography. It should be noted that for some records, there are no bibliographical references indicated in connection with the archive.8 This absence is not accounted for: is there no relevant bibliography, are the texts still unpublished? An explanatory note would have been welcome. After the bibliography comes a description of the archive, whose length varies according to the complexity of each archive. The description is focused on the archival aspect: the “economic, socio-cultural, linguistic aspects are dealt with only briefly” (p. 19). Then, the texts belonging to the archive are listed, as well as the types of documents included in it (internal, outgoing, incoming). Finally, when this is relevant, appendices are displayed (mostly tables and graphs).

Lists of indices and concordances are included at the end of the book: indices of the archives according to their type (private—official—miscellaneous) (pp. 456-458); an index of the places of origin of the archives (pp. 459-462); an index according to the language of the archives (Demotic, Greek-Demotic and Greek-Latin; the Greek archives, which represent the major part of the Fayum archives, are not included in this index) (pp. 463); an index of personal names (pp. 464-493). Finally, the authors supply a table of concordance between the archives and their ArchID numbers (pp. 494-496). These indices and concordances prove very useful, though it should be noted that mention of the corresponding pages will not be found in these indices, but in the table of contents included at the beginning of the book (pp. 7-11).

The authors have made a thorough, precise and impressive work by reconstructing the archives of the Fayum from dispersed texts, and by making this work available to the scholarly community. The online uploading of the records on Trismegistos represents an invaluable tool in the era of digital humanities, making it easily accessible; from a more practical point of view, it also allows the description of the archives to be readily updated to take into account any newly discovered texts connected to a specific archive. This publication will prove of great value to the papyrological and Egyptological research fields, not only for philological and archival research, but also for scholars working on the social history of Graeco-Roman Fayum and Egypt—since an archive says much about the context of a text.


1.   See, in particular, the congress held in Milan in 2008 on Egyptian and Egyptological archives (P. Piacentini, C. Orsenigo (eds), Egyptian archives: proceedings of the first session of the International Congress Egyptian Archives/Egyptological Archives, Milano, September 9—10, 2008, Milano, 2009 (Quaderni di Acme 111)), and the periodical Egyptian & Egyptological Documents, Archives, Libraries, first published in 2009.
2.   See for example E. Gady, “La découverte et le projet de mise en valeur des archives du musée gréco-romain d’Alexandrie : projet AMGRA”, Egyptian & Egyptological Documents, Archives, Libraries 1, 2009, p. 141-147
3.   See for example C. Armoni, Das Archiv der Taricheuten Amenneus und Onnophris aus Tanis (P.Tarich), Paderborn, 2013 (Paryrologica Coloniensia 37).
4.   Trismegistos
5.   Cf. K. Vandorpe, S. Waebens, Reconstructing Pathyris’ archives: a multicultural community in Hellenistic Egypt, Brussel, 2009.
6.   See for example ArchID 134 (pp. 132-136 of the book, and on Trismegistos).
7.   Fayum archives on Trismegistos
8.   In order of appearance in the book: ArchID 535, 327, 272, 385, 100 and 340.

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