Background Image

Identifying Papyri with the DLME

by Jacco Dieleman

The Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME) works as an aggregator that enables searching for cultural artifacts from the Middle East across many online catalogs and platforms. Whereas I currently have to search a multitude of such catalogs of museums, libraries, and research projects to collect my data—a laborious procedure—the DLME is meant to serve as a one-stop-shop to quickly find manuscripts, art, music, footage, digitized newspapers, and other material kept in collections and archives around the world. Thanks to its user-friendly search function, it is easy to set search parameters to find what you are looking for. The search results are conveniently listed with images (where available) and basic metadata that include a link to the online catalog from which the record was harvested and where more detailed information can be found. Thus the DLME not only provides a great service to all who want to learn about the Middle East, but also serves as a web archive of the cultural heritage of the Middle East, making looting and illegal sale more difficult.

As an Egyptian philologist, I could not help but search for papyri. Over the past few years, more and more papyrus collections have made their holdings available on the Internet, usually with comprehensive metadata (e.g., the British Museum), occasionally also with excellent high-resolution photos (e.g., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Browsing these databases is a regular pastime for me, and over time I have become quite familiar with the holdings of these collections. So when I asked the DLME to provide me a list of Egyptian papyri, I meant it to be a test: would it generate a list of the usual papyri from the various online collection databases known to me? Imagine my surprise when it listed not only those papyri I expected, but also two papyri that I was unaware of. Thanks to the DLME, I just found out that the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania has two Egyptian papyri. They were gifted to the library in 2011 as part of the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection. One is a legal agreement about the lease of a brewery drawn up in 201/200 BCE in Demotic Egyptian and provided with a Greek registration docket as was required at the time by the Greek colonial administration. The other document is a set of nine fragments of a Book of the Dead manuscript with delicate vignettes and labels in hieratic writing, the cursive form of hieroglyphs.

These two documents had so far escaped my attention, because the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania is otherwise not known for having papyri. I simply never bothered to search their collection database—after all, there are already so many databases to keep track of. But since the DLME links so many of those disparate databases, it yielded unexpected results within seconds. As the curator of manuscripts informed me within an hour of receiving my email, the legal document (LJS 309) had already been published in 1978, when it was still part of a former private collection in France. When I checked this against the records in Trismegistos, the online portal of papyrological and epigraphic resources, I learned that its records are outdated (TM 4294): no mention of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania. How was I to know? The Book of the Dead fragments (LJS 45), on the other hand, so the curator wrote me, have never been published. A quick search in the online Book of the Dead Database of the University of Bonn confirmed this: no results.

Thanks to the DLME linking back to the OPenn repository, which provides excellent metadata and high-resolution archival images of primary digital resources, I could study the Book of the Dead fragments on my laptop in the comfort of my home. By deciphering the hieratic writing and identifying the vignettes, I could quickly establish that the nine fragments were cut out from a Book of the Dead scroll that was originally inscribed with the standard sequence of 165 spells and their associated vignettes and laid out as a Style 2 document. This format is typical for Book of the Dead manuscripts from the Saqqara cemetery that date to the Late and Ptolemaic periods (664-30 BCE). The nine fragments preserve the titles and vignettes of spells 18 (§9), 21, 23, 59, 85, 77, 63, and 115. Given the good state of preservation of these fragments, it is very likely that further fragments of the same manuscript await identification in other collections. One can only hope that they will soon be digitized and made available online, so the DLME can find them.

I shared the information described above with the curators of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the project director of Trismegistos. The TM records will soon be updated, as will the catalog of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania. The Book of the Dead fragments deserve closer study as the number of Book of the Dead manuscripts from Saqqara is limited. The results of this research, all started thanks to the DLME prototype, will be submitted to Manuscript Studies, the journal of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies of the University of Pennsylvania. A quick and easy search in the DLME has thus led to a very productive scholarly collaboration: a “lost” manuscript has been relocated for Trismegistos (TM 4294 = LJS 309), while the Book of the Dead fragments are no longer isolated curiosa, but now a recognized part of the ever growing corpus of Book of the Dead manuscripts that are available online for study (as of writing, 2992 manuscripts in the Book of the Dead database).

Jacco Dieleman is an Egyptologist based in Washington D.C.. He was on the faculty at UCLA from 2003 to 2017 and has been a fellow at numerous international research institutes, including the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU; the Morphomata Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Cologne; the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; and the Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University.