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Digital Corpus of Literary Papyri Launched

By Tom Elliott , Roger Bagnall
12/20/2017

In November, ISAW submitted a final report to the National Endowment for the Humanities on the "Digital Corpus of Literary Papyri" project (DCLP). This report marked the end of a four-year-long collaborative initiative to launch the creation of a comprehensive, searchable digital collection of literary and subliterary texts surviving on papyrus and similar materials from the area of ancient Egypt and environs.

This initiative was funded by a pair of complementary grants under a special program to encourage international collaboration on major research initiatives.  Roger Bagnall directed work under the auspices of an NEH grant to New York University (NEH HG-50050-13) with the assistance of Tom Elliott as Project Manager. The other grant was supplied by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) to the Institute of Papyrology at the University of Heidelberg (DFG GZ: AS 382/2-1). Rodney Ast served as Project Director in Heidelberg. Several other institutions also participated in the project under sub-awards and other collaborative arrangements, including the Anagnosis project at the University of Würzburg in Germany, the Corpus of Greek Medical Papyri project at the University of Parma in Italy, the Collaboratory for Classics Computing at Duke University in the U.S., and the Trismegistos project at KU Leuven in Belgium.

The DCLP has produced both software and digital content of value to scholars who work with ancient literature and book culture (e.g., classical philologists, theologians, and ancient historians). Nearly 15,000 fragments of ancient literary works have been documented in the form of open, digital "metadata" records available online on the DCLP demonstration website LitPap.info, and nearly 1,000 newly searchable texts have been encoded and incorporated into these records as well. The website itself constitutes another important output of the project: a version of the software that powers Papyri.info, customized for the specific needs of literary papyri. In addition to the LitPap.info, all DCLP code and data are openly available from https://github.com/DCLP.

Work on the DCLP continues. At Heidelberg, Ast's team is completing additional software modifications necessary to fully support editing and publishing of the literary papyri, including the creation and editing of modern-language translations.  Once these modifications are complete, the Duke team plans to finish merging the LitPap.info and Papyri.info code bases so that a single, unified system for both literary and documentary papyri can be rolled out in 2018.

What's the distinction between "literary" and "documentary" papyri? Papyrologists have long separated literary and documentary texts in their discipline, with the latter comprising day-to-day writing like contracts, tax returns, administrative or personal correspondence, and the like. Literary papyri are further often subdivided in order to distinguish between "high literature" and "sub" or "paraliterary" treatises related to science, education, religion, and popular belief. Roughly ten percent of texts studied to date (numbering altogether about 70,000 in Greek and Latin by recent estimate) are fragments of literature, constituting either far more ancient witnesses to works known otherwise from medieval manuscripts or "new" texts not preserved elsewhere. Literary papyri reveal the state of literary texts before the Middle Ages, which through the process of copying both transmitted and contaminated the ancient textual tradition. These papyri are also the source of most of the additions to our knowledge of ancient literature in the past 125 years and the basis for many important new ideas about ancient literacy, reading culture, and textual transmission. Important works preserved exclusively in papyri include the lyrics of Sappho and Archilochus and the Paeans of Pindar, the verses of Callimachus, the comedies of Menander, the Constitution of the Athenians by Aristotle, lost plays of the classical Athenian dramatists, and early Christian and Gnostic works which once competed with the New Testament, not to mention a host of unattributed works in a great variety of genres. From Herculaneum, one of the towns buried in AD 79 by Mount Vesuvius, comes an entire ancient philosophical library on carbonized papyrus. On the most generous definition, however, "literary" papyri include an even richer harvest, such as recipes for medicines, horoscopes, geometry problems, magical spells, tables of fractions, conjugations of verbs, and exercises from ancient schools. In the coming years, members of the papyrological community will continue to add more encoded texts from these genres to the thousand texts already in DCLP; like its documentary counterpart, the DCLP is an ongoing community-based resource.

Digital Corpus of Literary Papyri Launched

Todd Hickey (left) and David Ratzan learn to use litpap.info with the assistance of Valeria Piano at a DCLP workshop at ISAW in August 2017.