UC Berkeley Library

Update: Moffitt Library is closed for seismic work, but most other libraries are open. Learn more.

Using the Library during COVID-19

Most of UC Berkeley’s library buildings are open. To stay up to date on the Library’s policies and services during the pandemic, visit the Library’s COVID-19 webpage.

History of the Tebtunis Papyri Collection

Content section: 

Unlike the other major papyrus collections in the United States, the Tebtunis papyri come from a single archaeological expedition, from four distinct sites in and around Tebtunis. Therefore, the history of the collection as a whole can be described easily. This history centers around three locations: Tebtunis, where the papyri were found; Oxford, where the publication of part of the collection was undertaken; and Berkeley, the present home of the collection.

Tebtunis (1899/1900)

excavation of Tebtunis 1899-1900Photo: Excavating the town of Tebtunis 1899/1900; courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society


The saga of the Tebtunis papyri commenced on 3 December 1899, when Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt arrived at the remains of what would soon prove to be Tebtunis. They had been hired by George A. Reisner to excavate for the University of California with funds generously provided by Phoebe Apperson Hearst.

Grenfell and Hunt's first objective was the town of Tebtunis itself.  In the course of a few weeks they explored the remains of the town and a temple complex that would turn out to be the temple of the crocodile god Soknebtunis ("Sobek, lord of Tebtunis").   In both locations they found a wealth of papyri.  George Reisner informed Phoebe Hearst on January 2, 1900 that he was "very happy to report extraordinary success on the part of Grenfell and Hunt in the Fayum," having found in less than a month "nearly as much as in any ordinary year."

In early January 1900, Grenfell and Hunt moved to the huge necropolis in the desert south of Tebtunis. Here they sought human mummies, in particular the cartonnage covering these mummies. A few years earlier, this cartonnage had been proven to be a possible source of texts, when Sir Flinders Petrie discovered that discarded papyri were sometimes employed in its manufacture (think "papyrus mâché"), especially during the Graeco-Roman era. Grenfell and Hunt successfully unearthed more than fifty mummies in whose cartonnage discarded papyri had been used.

Tebtunis cemetery 1899-1900While searching for papyrus-laden mummy heads and pectorals, Grenfell and Hunt discovered a cemetery of mummified crocodiles bordering the necropolis of human mummies. At that time crocodiles were considered to be objects without any archaeological worth whatsoever.

This assessment soon changed, however, when on January 16, 1900 one of Grenfell and Hunt's workmen, "disgusted at finding a row of crocodiles where he expected sarcophagi, broke one of them in pieces and disclosed the surprising fact that the creature was wrapped in sheets of papyrus." After this discovery, Grenfell and Hunt devoted the remainder of the season to clearing out part of the crocodile cemetery. Although they unearthed more than 1,000 of these mummified reptiles, only 31 appeared to have been mummified with the help of discarded papyri. Grenfell and Hunt's assistant definitely had a stroke of luck.

In the summer of 1900, finally, the discoveries of the season at Tebtunis were presented to George Reisner and divided: all artifacts were shipped to Berkeley, and are currently housed in the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology; most papyri written in demotic Egyptian remained in Egypt where they were published in 1908 by W. Spiegelberg in P. dem. Cairo II; papyri written in Greek (along with some in Egyptian and a few in Latin) went to Oxford, where Grenfell and Hunt prepared them for publication.

Photo: View of cemetery at Tebtunis 1899/1900; courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

Oxford (1900-1938 for most of the papyri)

Grenfell and Hunt, with the help of J. G. Smyly, managed to publish the first volume of The Tebtunis Papyri just two years after their discovery. This first volume contained documents from the crocodile mummies.

In 1907, Grenfell and Hunt published the second volume, which was devoted to the papyri from the town and temple of Tebtunis itself.

The publication of a third group of papyri was delayed by the illness and eventual death of Grenfell, and then by the death of Hunt. In 1933, however, Oxford finally published a first batch of material found in the cartonnage of human mummies with the preparation assistance of J. G. Smyly. Oxford published the second batch in 1938 with preparation help again from Smyly and with editorial help from C. C. Edgar.  

Meanwhile in Berkeley, questions arose as to the whereabouts of the promised Tebtunis papyri. In 1938, therefore, Oxford shipped the papyri to their intended home at the University of California at Berkeley.

Berkeley (1938 -)

heat sealing Vinylite frame to protect papyrus, 1940Photo: Heat-sealing a Vinylite frame, 1940

In 1938 most of the Tebtunis papyri arrived in Berkeley and became part of the Library. Staff and faculty were surprised to find that, more than 30 years after their discovery, no measures had been taken to preserve them. They were simply inserted between pages of old issues of the Oxford Daily Gazette and piled up in the tin boxes used by Grenfell and Hunt.  

In 1940 the University of California sought the services of a papyrologist. Since no such specialist was to be found in Berkeley, the University hired Edmund Kase, Jr., from Grove City College in Pennsylvania.  Through the summer Dr. Kase was to put the collection in order, providing guidance for preservation and cataloguing.

Kase took 1705 fragments from the tin boxes, catalogued them, and mounted them. The material that Kase selected to mount the papyri was a plastic called Vinylite. In a letter to Prof. H. R. W. Smith, Kase enthusiastically enumerated the advantages of this new material: it was unbreakable, it took up less storage space than glass, and it was light.

Fragments beyond the 1705 that Kase mounted remained loose in the tin boxes until the 1970s.

"Vinylite is easy to store. . . " 1940

Photo: "Vinylite is easy to store. . . " 1940

The 1970s

papyri fragments mounted in Vinylite, 1940Photo: The 1705 fragments mounted in Vinylite, 1940

In the early seventies, work on the Tebtunis papyri resumed at The Bancroft Library. Efforts completed by the late John Shelton and James Keenan culminated in the publication of a fourth volume of The Tebtunis Papyri. These were the papyri that had only been briefly described at the end of the first (crocodile papyri) volume.

The renewed attention to the Tebtunis papyri also made painfully clear what time had done to the collection. It became apparent that Vinylite had enormous disadvantages hitherto unknown. Light and unbreakable as predicted by Kase, the material also proved to be quite flexible. This flexibility caused fragments of the papyri to break off inside the mount, and these fragments tended to move around due to the static electricity generated by the two sheets of plastic. This damage could not, and cannot, be repaired without breaking the mount because the mounts were heat sealed. Another disadvantage of the Vinylite was its susceptibility to scratching.

While working on the papyri, Shelton remounted some of the papyri under glass. He also urged the library to take measures to prevent further damage to the papyri.

In 1979, Dr. Elbert Wall visited The Bancroft Library on behalf of the American Center of the International Photographic Archive of Papyri.  Not only did he photograph the 1705 mounted and catalogued fragments, he also removed more than 21,000 papyrus fragments from the tin boxes in order to photograph the most important of them. He then stored them in acid-free folders, ten fragments to a folder. Unfortunately, Wall did not have sufficient time to remove all of the papyri from the tin boxes.

In the late 1970s, then, the situation with regard to the Tebtunis Papyri Collection was as follows:

  • About 1600 of the mounted and catalogued papyri were still in their Vinylite mounts.
  • The remainder of them had been remounted in glass.
  • More than 21,000 fragments were crushed together in acid-free folders.
  • There still remained a number of tin boxes with papyrus fragments, including part of an unopened roll.

APIS  (1996-2013)

Thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, work on the Tebtunis papyri has resumed once again.

In 1996, The Bancroft Library began to catalogue, conserve, and digitally image the collection as a participant in the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS).

As of 1 July 2013, the host and steward of canonical APIS data is papyri.info, which is served by the DC3 and Duke University Libraries.