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APIS: Advanced Papyrological Information System

Columbia University
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Reviewed by:
John Bert Lott
Vassar College
March 2004

This review also references two additional websites:

University of Michigan Papyrus Collection
University of Michigan

Duke Papyrus Archive
Duke University

As a writing medium, papyrus persisted across broad span of time, societies, and languages—from the 13th century BCE to the 14th century CE; from Pharonic Egypt to the Islamic Caliphate; from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Persian and Arabic. Due to issues of preservation, though, papyrus documents were not spread across geographical boundaries. They are recovered nearly exclusively from the desert edges of the Nile Valley. Examples of almost every type of document, from the most banal lists and contracts to hymns, histories, plays, and poems survive on papyrus and many of these are available online.

A number of important collections of ancient papyri held in American universities are now available online as separate collections and as part of a meta-archive, APIS. APIS offers papyrus from the collections of Columbia, Duke, Princeton, Berkeley, Michigan, and Yale Universities, yielding 18,000 individual documents and 20,000 derivative images. The archives at Michigan and Duke offer online tools and exhibitions that are more accessible to world history teachers and students. All of these collections make available a large body of primary materials that are often difficult to access, provide searchability and structure, and allow users to work with images as well as with scholarly editions, transliterations, and translations.

The Michigan collection offers “snapshots of daily life” in Egyptian antiquity with correspondence and accounts of individuals, mostly from Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. For example, the letters of the Roman soldier Claudius Terentianus (2nd century CE) are often used to reveal the lives of a Roman soldier and his family, to illustrate non-elite Greco-Roman society during the Roman Empire, and to demonstrate vernacular writing and grammar in Latin and Greek. A brief discussion contextualizes the letters and demonstrates how they are used to study TerentianusÂ’ life. Links to fuller descriptions and translations of the documents are available within this discussion. (A search for Terentianus in APIS turns up all of his letters with extensive bibliography, physical description, notes about each text, and translations.) The Zenon archive, which contains letters between Apollonios (finance minister to Ptolemy Philadelphus) and his private secretary Zenon, in the village of Philadelphia, deals with personal affairs of an important official in the Ptolemaic court. The Michigan collection offers a short contextualizing narrative to introduce the documents.

The Duke Papyrus Archive allows users to browse documents according to particular subject headings and areas of interest to modern scholars. Thus, documents that shed light on women and children, slaves, religion, or food are all collected together, rather than documents related to particular individuals. Students could look at documents written by women to suggest the scope of public or private activities in which women participated in Roman Egypt. For example, in a petition to Agathis, a high civil and army official, Theambesis, a wine seller and daughter of Onnophris, complains that a person named Heliodoros failed to repay a loan and asks the official to order Heliodoros arrested. From this document, students could discover, perhaps surprisingly, that under some circumstances women in Ptolemaic Egypt could own property, engage in contracts, and access the civil judicial system. The Duke Archive also offers links to about a dozen online resources related to papyrology.

The APIS meta-archive supports a cross-collection usability that makes it the starting point of choice for searching out specific papyrus documents or browsing broadly through content or media. Users can also begin from one of APISÂ’s extensive subset catalogs: documentary and literary types (lease, edict, diploma, hymn, elegy, medical, epistolary, etc.), subjects (an extensive keyword list, which is less useful for general browsing), media, or language. The main search page requires specific knowledge of what one is looking for and of the cataloging strictures used for papyri to be truly useful. Descriptions, images, texts, translations, and bibliography are available for many (but by no means all) documents, depending on the data captured by the different institutions whose collections make up APIS. For example, the Michigan Archive does not contain images of every document, whereas the Duke Archive does not provide translations of every document.

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