The Oxyrhynchus Papyri

Reference: NLW MS 4738D

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are the oldest manuscripts at The National Library of Wales. They comprise 3 ancient Egyptian fragments of papyrus, dating from 113 AD to the 4th century. They are an example of the thousands of papyri that were discovered in Egypt during the 1890s, and although they are common, everyday papers, they contain valuable information on the society of their era.

What is papyrus?

Papyrus is an ancient writing material from Egypt. It was made from the pith of the papyrus, a plant which used to grow on the banks of the river Nile. Unlike the modern day paper that we use, papyrus was a thick, strong and durable material.

The rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus

Oxyrhynchus was an ancient town in the north of Egypt (situated near the modern town of al-Bahnasa), approximately 160km southwest of Cairo on one of the Nile's canals. Although it was a prosperous city during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, little remains of Oxyrhynchus today. However, its history has been preserved within the refuse of its inhabitants, discovered in enormous mounds outside the town.

Little attention was given to Oxyrhynchus as an ancient site of importance until the late 1890s when Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, two young papyrologists of the 'Egypt Exploration Society', began to dig up the rubbish mounds. There, beneath the drifted sand, they discovered a thousand years' worth of papyri which had been preserved in ideal conditions because of the town's location - it hardly rains in this part of Egypt, and although Oxyrhynchus was situated near a canal, it did not suffer from the annual flooding which was commonplace on the banks of the Nile.

The historical significance of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

Traditionally, only grand, official documents carved in stone have survived from the classical world, but the Oxyrhynchus archive is unusual and unparalleled as it contained what the classical sites of Greece and Italy could not preserve - paper.

The vast majority of the papyri record everyday life e.g. private letters, shopping lists and tax forms, with a small proportion of a literary nature, but also discovered were several early copies of the New Testament. These manuscripts were written in Greek, the language commonly used in Egypt during this period. Although most of the papyri appear to be of little significance, they offer a glimpse of the daily life of the ancient city's inhabitants.

The Papyri of the National Library

Examples of the Oxyrhynchus papyri were distributed among museums, libraries and similar institutions in Western Europe, and3 of these ancient manuscripts were donated to the National Library in September 1922, as NLW MS 4738D. They include a receipt for an instalment of poll tax, an order to supply a baker with the herb 'fenugreek', and a letter written by a man named Demetrianus.

Further Reading

  • Egypt Exploration Society:The Oxyrhynchus papyri, Volume XII, (London: 1898-19), nos. 1521, 1572 and 1590.
  • Parsons, Peter : The city of the sharp nosed fish : Greek lives in Roman Egypt (London, 2007)

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