Riches from the Rubbish Dumps

One of our newest Classics Ambassadors, Samuel Holden from Runshaw College, recounts the highlights of Dr Margaret Mountford’s visit to the Association in November when she addressed a 250-strong audience:

New LSA CA Classics Ambassadors and Dr Margaret Mountford

Dr Mountford with the five newest Student Ambassadors (L-R Sam, Jonathan, Niamh, Eleanor and Dan)

“Papyrus is one of our best sources for a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people in the classical world. In her talk, Dr Margaret Mountford explored the ways in which papyrus was made, how a perishable material like papyrus was preserved, and how so many papyri have been discovered and uncovered. We are used to thinking about the plays, poems and legal documents of the ancient world but Dr Mountford showed us that these are not the only texts that survive.

She opened the evening by taking us through the various ways in which people of ancient civilisations recorded their daily activities. Ancient gravestones used to honour the dead were very similar to the ones we have today with names and ages inscribed onto them, and they have been used as cat chairs in both the modern and ancient worlds! Recycling has been going on for centuries: after a cooking pot has become worn or broken, what do you do with it? Break it down further to write on! We are extremely lucky today that sherds of pottery (ostraca) instead of metal were used for inscriptions because they can give us such a valuable insight into their daily lives. Dr Mountford explained how on the very edge of the Roman world at Vindolanda, archaeologists found one of the richest sources of written communication in the Roman world. They were our equivalent of postcards and contain all sorts of interesting information, from party invitations to letters asking their commanding officer for more alcohol.

After giving a brief introduction to the different methods of written communication Dr Mountford started to discuss one of the most fascinating writing surfaces in the ancient world: papyrus. Described as the, “paper of the classical world”, Dr Mountford opened our eyes to the intricate details of how papyrus was made, used and preserved, and how we rely upon Pliny the Elder’s research even though he probably never saw papyrus being made! Our eyes were also opened to the impracticality of using the papyrus to read from because they were often rolled up into scrolls. But if you had a bookcase with hundreds of these scrolls, how would you find the one you were looking for? This is where our word, “syllabus”, comes from. It was a small tag that would drape down from each scroll that would have been used to identify them. Such minute details were very pragmatic but, of course, there was the issue of the scroll being backwards after reading, and they would have needed to have been re -rolled up. This could have become quickly irritating if you were having to research a topic by sifting through multiple scrolls!


Giant papyrus plants!

But how did these overlapping strips of papyrus pith, that were soaked in water and then glued together, survive for multiple millennia? Most sources of papyrus, such as in Oxyrhynchus, are found in Egypt which has an arid climate, apart from the northernmost part. This meant that any papyrus documents that were buried or forgotten often ended up metres under the sand where it was almost completely dry. The “best” papyrus, according to Dr Mountford, is about 3 metres down because after that it gets too crushed or compacted, and after 8 metres down it starts to get wet. Because it is so dry, no micro-organisms can survive meaning there is no decomposition of the papyrus and it also helps that they were encapsulated in carbon. The sad truth that Dr Mountford brought to our attention, is that when papyrus was first being discovered, it was often thrown away as it appeared to be lumps of charcoal. Who knows, the mystery to Greek fire could have been locked away deep in Egypt away from harm, only to be thrown away centuries later.


Archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt

One of the best sources of papyri was from an ancient rubbish dump nearby Oxyrhynchus.  Since its discovery in 1898 by Grenfell and Hunt, around 5000 ancient documents have been decoded and pieced together. From a scribe copying out lines to spells, Dr Mountford explored the world of papyri.

One of the first examples that Dr Mountford shared with us was P. Oxy. L 3554. This scrap of papyrus gives us a fascinating insight into the life of person whose work we take for granted. It is the work of a scribe who is practising writing two lines of Virgil’s Aeneid.  The amount of painstaking work that went into this menial job is incredible and without sources like these we would not have access to the epic poems of Virgil and Homer nor would we appreciate the laborious job of scribes copying out lines again and again – I know that I would not want to copy out the Aeneid!

P. Oxy. L 3554

Another example was P. Oxy. 34. 2707. This almost complete piece of papyrus was a circus programme from the sixth century AD. One point that Dr Mountford raised, was that an average person going to watch the circus would not be able to read, so they must have been given to the ring master to ensure the show runs smoothly. About three quarters of the way through it states that after the fourth chariot race there will be mimes. They had various shows in-between each chariot race such as a procession, singing rope-dancers, gazelles and hounds, mimes, and a troupe of athletes. This all included the six chariot races. They certainly got their money’s worth out of going to a circus race. Without these records, we would have been left speculating how these immense events ran so smoothly and it is fascinating that the way events are organised has not changed in centuries.

P. Oxy. 34. 2707

The most bizarre piece of papyrus found was definitely P. Oxy. 5245. This strange document containing spells or medical advice was certainly from a magician or a doctor. They were probably interchangeable. This piece of, “local folklore”, as described by Dr Mountford, was a cure for a hangover. Although the medical profession has become more advanced through the ages, there is still no definitive cure for a hangover and many cures today are still local folklore just like in ancient Egypt. Maybe there will never be a cure for a hangover and people in centuries to come will find our records for hangover cures and still not know the answer!

P. Oxy. 5245

After Dr Mountford’s thought-provoking lecture, we were left with a new appreciation for the importance of these seemingly insignificant papyrus scraps. And as Samuel Southern said in his vote of thanks, we will all be thinking about what we write on our pieces of paper because they just might be examined by historians in the future!”

Sam Southern AKS & Dr Margaret Mountford



©Samuel Holden