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Solving the papyrus puzzle

The ancient Egyptians left behind a plethora of papyri containing valuable written information but most of these have remained unpublished and unstudied. The EU-funded ELEPHANTINE project has created a large database and a new software solution that could soon change this. This could allow for a much better understanding of some of the world’s most fascinating ancient civilisations.

©ihorbondarenko #293001949, source: 2021

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Elephantine is an island located on the Nile in Upper Egypt. Positioned between the border of ancient Egypt and Nubia, it once played an important role both as a defensive fort and in facilitating international trade. As such, the island was home to an array of ethnicities, religions and cultures, many of whom left behind a trove of historically significant manuscripts and papyri (a writing material made from the papyrus plant growing in Egypt).

“No other settlement in Egypt is so well attested over such a long period of time through texts,” says Verena Lepper, a professor at the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, part of the National Museums of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. “Its people left us vast amounts of written sources detailing their everyday lives and covering a period of history that spans from the Old Kingdom to beyond the Arab conquest.”

The problem is that these papyri and manuscripts are now scattered across the world, with 80 % remaining unpublished and unstudied. But, with the support of the EU-funded and European Research Council-supported ELEPHANTINE project, Lepper and her team are working towards solving this ‘papyrus puzzle’.

“By analysing several thousand written sources, we aim to reconstruct 4 000 years of cultural history,” explains Lepper. “In doing so, we will gain greater insight into such aspects as the role multiculturalism played in ancient society, what family life was like, and how different religions developed.”

A step change in studying ancient civilisations

Considering that these papyri are written in 10 different languages and scripts, including hieroglyphs, hieratic, Demotic, Aramaic, Greek, Coptic and Arabic, analysing them all was a monumental task. To tackle it, the project team started by creating a large database with 120 fields per object. The database, which will be made available to the public at the end of the project, currently includes over 10 000 objects from 60 collections located in 24 different countries in both Europe and beyond.

In addition to organising this huge amount of data, there is also the challenge of accessing the actual text. “Because these documents are often rolled, folded and very brittle, getting to the text was a challenge,” adds Lepper.

Working with physicists and mathematicians, the project developed a breakthrough system that uses a combination of computer tomography and specially developed software to virtually open the papyri.

“For the first time ever, we were able to read a papyrus package written in Coptic without actually opening it,” notes Lepper. “This represents a step change in our ability to study ancient civilisations, eliminating the risk of damaging the artefact while providing full access to the information.”

Supporting other museums, collections and archives

Although work continues, the project has already published information on its virtual reading procedure in various international journals. “Our hope is that other museums, collections and archives will be able to incorporate our methods into their own research and work,” says Lepper.

Lepper recently had the opportunity to examine 35 unopened boxes of Elephantine papyrus material kept in the Institut de France, at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. Discovered during the excavations led by noted French archaeologist Charles Clermont Ganneau, these never-before-studied documents have now been incorporated into the project’s database.

The project team is also working towards an exhibition about the project’s results for the Neues Museum, part of Berlin’s Museum Island, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

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Project details

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€ 1 500 000
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€ 1 500 000
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