Reading Everyday History In Tattered Scraps

Associate Professor of Classical Studies Joshua D. Sosin views his work as a delicious puzzle.
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Feb 14, 2008

You’re pumping gas, and find at your feet a receipt, with strings of letters and numbers. What can you tell about the individual who dropped it?

Now, “imagine it’s only half a receipt,” says Associate Professor of Classical Studies and History Joshua D. Sosin, “written in a language you know only imperfectly because no one speaks it any more. And the version of it you know uses different spelling and different grammar. And the other 70 examples we have are separated in space by many miles and in time by as many as eight centuries.”  

 It would certainly be an intriguing puzzle.

Sosin, who studies ancient Egypt's great literature as well as crime reports, court petitions and marriage contracts, directs the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri (DDBDP), a collection of Greek and Latin writing found on scraps of papyrus, pottery and wood. The collection represents a collaboration begun 25 years ago by two Duke classics professors, the late John F. Oates and the late William H. Willis. Both were supported by the Packard Humanities Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated in part to archeology. 

 “There are roughly 60,000 published Greek documents on papyri from antiquity,” Sosin explains. “Some of it comes from garbage dumps, some of it from cartonnage, which was used to make mummy casings, a product of one of the first known large-scale recycling efforts. Priests who had the right to embalm the dead went around to offices and individuals and collected waste paper to make into a kind of papier maché to use for mummification. Papyri are the paper trail of the bureaucracy of antiquity.” 

 But the field of papyrology is anything but stuffy. “Papryology is poised to be the first of the sub-disciplines of classics, perhaps the first in the humanities, to be entirely digital," Sosin says. "Our running scientific bibliography is entirely digital. More and more collections are digitizing the physical objects and starting to do exciting things with the images. We’re only a couple of years away from being able to map individual letters on images of papyri to their particular transcriptions in the databank.” 

The Duke papyrus collection has 500 published volumes that can be searched electronically through the Perseus Project, a digital library at TuftsUniversity in Medford, Mass. A larger digital collection is currently in production, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It will integrate Duke's data with collections at ColumbiaUniversity and the University of Heidelberg, Germany, enabling researchers to search, retrieve, and display Greek texts, supplementary metadata and digital images of the papyri themselves, regardless of location. 

"This is a fine example of how the old and the new, papyri and technology, can be connected to provide immense potential for researchers," says Deborah Jakubs, the Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and vice provost for library affairs at Duke. 

It wasn’t always so. As a first-semester graduate student under Oates, Sosin was handed "an unpublished text – the actual physical object, between two sheets of glass – and he said ‘Go!’ I looked at it and said ‘There’s not much here to work with.’ He said, ‘You think that’s hard? Here are five more like it.’” 

Sosin was hooked. “Some part of my intellectual development grows from the selfish pleasure you get from cracking codes. Documents are just hard, compared with even the most difficult nice, clean piece of Greek that’s preserved in a print book. The minute you pick up a text whose right half has been eaten by worms, the challenge goes right through the roof. Add to that a lack of standard orthography (spelling conventions). Add to that grammar usage that isn’t consistent with what you learned in school books and you ratchet up the difficulty.” 

What emerges isn't a tidy history-book version of ancient life, but the gritty reality of how people actually lived.  

“We like to apply all-embracing, reductive historical models, but the world is a messy place and these models often describe only the five percent of society who produced and consumed the literary output with which we’re familiar. But most people couldn’t afford those books, they didn’t read them, they didn’t live by their rules. The papyri give us a view from the ground up of the way life was actually lived, by the bottom 95 percent.” 

"I feel a commitment to uncover the lives of ordinary people and something about what it meant to exist in a world in which most individuals lived at the edges of subsistence," Sosin says. 

Jerry Oster is the director of communications for Arts & Sciences and Arts & Sciences Development at Duke.