Why Study Papyrology?

a papyrologist

Why Study Papyrology?

The study of papyrology is very important for our understanding of the ancient world. The texts we study provide information about linguistics, culture, and literature in the ancient world which cannot be found anywhere else.


Because many papyri were written by common people with little education, who may have learned the letters of the alphabet but not much else about writing, their documents are very helpful in understanding how they perceived their own language. Many of the papyri in our collection were written by Greek-speaking people living in Egypt. Their use of common Greek, known as koine, is instructive as to how the ancient dialects gave way to a simplified language that did not vary from region to region. Also, we can learn much from the mistakes of ancient writers. Spelling errors often occur when one sound is represented by another letter, or when a letter drops out of a word completely. From these spelling mistakes, we can get an idea of how the language was pronounced, a task which is difficult for a language that has not been spoken for thousands of years.


Because papyri are often written by normal, everyday citizens, they give us a glimpse of daily life which cannot be seen elsewhere. From private letters we can glean information about family life and the daily concerns of a typical citizen. From sales receipts and inventory lists we can discover what types of things were being bought and sold, to whom and at what price. Official documents such as court proceedings can teach us about the workings of government and how people interacted with their local officials. Papyrology gives you the opportunity to get inside the mind of an ancient person, as you read their words exactly as they were written thousands of years ago.


In addition to letters, court proceedings, and such, which are called documentary texts, there exist a great number of literary texts available for study as well. Most surviving pieces of ancient literature survive as a result of manuscript copies made in the middle ages. However, a papyrus with the same text on it is much, much older, giving scholars a chance to emend mistakes or verify the accuracy of modern versions. Sometimes, a papyrus may contain a piece of literature which does not exist anywhere else, providing a unique opportunity to expand the body of ancient literature.

For students of history, linguistics, classical literature, philosophy, archaeology, and other fields, the information available in ancient papyri is indispensable. Papyrology is very much a field of interdisciplinary study, and even scientists such as chemists and physicists help solve the complicated problems of reading and preserving these fragile manuscripts.

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Last modified: 03/11/2014