By: Leah Packard Grams

Killing Time: Reading Ancient Text-Artifacts in the Digital Realm

Keywords: papyrology; digital humanities; digitisation; accessibility, time


The field of papyrology appeals to many scholars because these ancient papyri (most of which have been excavated from Egypt) preserve texts in the very handwriting of the people who wrote them. The handwritten notes of everyday people as well as the autographs of Cleopatra and Emperor Theodosius II survive within these miraculous documents. Reading ancient papyri allows for a kind of time travel- an immediate connection to someone who lived thousands of years ago. The great “papyrological project” of scholars is to excavate, read, and publish every papyrus that survives from antiquity. It is a lofty goal whose fulfilment lies many generations in the future, since there are hundreds of thousands of papyri in collections spanning the globe. As we tackle one papyrus at a time, digitisation tools allow us to manipulate text-artefacts such as papyri in ways that are not possible offline, enabling their legibility.

The digitisation of papyri does not stop with a simple photo or scan of the artefact, however. Papyrologists use a diverse range of digital technologies to enhance the legibility of these artefacts, and among these are the two main papyrological databases. These databases (Trismegistos.org and Papyri.info) serve to combine metadata into searchable formats, which help papyrologists find parallel texts.[1] Numerous papyrologists use Photoshop in their work, adjusting levels, light, and contrast to make the ink on papyrus “pop” (see fig. 1). Scholars also frequently use a digital microscope to magnify and clarify certain letters (see fig. 2). Recent efforts have also succeeded in “virtually unrolling” carbonised scrolls using noninvasive CT scanning, leaving the artefact safely untouched.[2] This allows for a mode of digital “sight”, sensing the layers of ink below the surface of what may otherwise be seen visually as a congealed lump of carbon. The primary work on the topic of digital papyrology is Nicola Reggiani’s two-volume work, Digital Papyrology, where even more examples and case studies of digital methods can be found. These various tools and their digital manipulation and organisation continue to be improved each year: papyrological databases are constantly being updated and collated, CT and other types of scanning are becoming more accurate, and applications are being developed to machine-learn ancient handwriting (the Ancient Lives project). There have even been projects dedicated to trying to simulate the process of papyrological interpretation (the eSAD project). This phenomenon is a papyrological paradox: namely, that we know more about the ancient documents of the past with every advance of the future.

In this paper, the double-edged sword of digital papyrology will be explored, examining the paradox of time that can be felt in the work as well as raising some ethical questions that digital papyrology poses, regardless of how elegant it may be conceptually. 

Time and Digital Papyrology

Reading ancient text-artefacts in the digital realm offers a sort of time travel, enhancing the legibility of papyri so that the voices of ancient peoples can be heard once again. In our work, faded ink is emboldened, fragments are reunited, and the meanings of sentences are pieced together. Technology mediates the space between scholars of antiquity and the people we study, rerouting time into a circuit, ever folding back onto itself with every iteration and version of the digital artefact. The Digital turns time into a spiral, its rotations occasionally bringing us parallel with the past while carrying us further towards the centre as we proceed into the limitless future. One great papyrologist has rightly mentioned the cumulative advantage of papyrology: “every edition broadens the base of our knowledge of the ancient world.”[3] This rings even truer now than when it was written in 1992, and the advances made since then in accessibility and digitisation have launched a whole new generation of papyrologists who have grown up viewing papyri on a computer screen, producing online editions of texts to add to our corpus of data. And yet, this moment is indeed a paradox: after a certain amount of time, the further we proceed away from antiquity, the more we can understand it as our methods become more efficient. The consequence of our practice is that we are pulled in two different directions, reaching deep into the past while using tools that lie at the edge of the future. We lie suspended, stretched between the two chronologies of the archaic and the digital until we snap; the cord of ignorance breaks and the words of a text are realised. The empty space between the papyrologist and the handwriting we aim to decipher is brought into contrast by digital devices; when this negative space turns positive, the enigma dissolves and we can read the words of the ancients as they wrote them—largely thanks to these digital modalities. The interplay of time between the search for the past and the inevitable pull of the future is the perfect example of how the Digital not only distorts and bends time, but also annihilates it. We look at an inscribed papyrus on a screen and are mindfully existent, experiencing the phenomenon of being past and present, as echoed in the experiential ontology of Zhuang Zhu and Hannah Arendt. If I can say “I am”, and point to a micro-CT scan of a papyrus and say “this is evidence that this scribe was”, what is the digital object in the here and now? What does that make our relationship to one another? The answer to that question is perhaps ineffable, but that is precisely the miracle of conducting digital studies in the field of history, caught between antiquity and a machine.

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Accessibility and Ethics of Digital Papyrology 

While the temporal magic of digital papyrology is both useful and profound, a number of issues related to accessibility nevertheless arise when using these tools. On the one hand, digitisation facilitates the reading of papyri, the “core business” of what we do,[4] while on the other hand, these digital versions may not be accessible to all scholars. Despite the fact that digital humanities has been championed as a more accessible approach to scholarship, we are nonetheless faced with some difficult questions that may suggest we are accomplishing the opposite of the intended effects of digitisation. Who has access to technology and databases? Trismegistos notably requires an often cost-prohibitive subscription. How can we ensure digital papyrology is a welcoming cyberspace for all? 

Dr Usama Gad has written on this topic in a blog post for Talking Humanities entitled “The digital divide and how to challenge the Eurocentric ‘exclusion zone’.”[5] In this piece, Dr Gad lays bare the unfortunate fact that digital papyrology is, at its heart, Eurocentric. It is no coincidence that Digital Papyrology (de Gruyter, 2018) contains contributions by a majority of white European men. The inaccessibility of digital papyrology is obvious once one considers the potential roadblocks such as data hidden behind paywalls (notably the essential database of Trismegistos, see above), the omission of translations of relevant ancient and modern texts, and colonial attitudes that remain pervasive in academia. When fashioning future digital spaces, Dr Gad offers a possible solution of including a “student from an ethnic/religious minority and a scholar from the global south, whose culture you are digitally appropriating,” and exhorts academics “to serve the underrepresented communities in your own society.” He suggests that this work may take the form of including Arabic translations and interfaces, conducting outreach work, or focusing more research on the local antiquities dealers who uncovered these papyri to add to their provenance. 

Another possible solution related to the issue Gad raises is the promotion of community-based collaborative work, notably during archaeological digs (and their subsequent cataloguing and research efforts) led by European and North American teams. Much attention has been given to the topic of indigenous archaeology and community inclusion, but the application of these strategies to the digitization of textual artefacts has been left mostly unexplored. In practice, this would take the form of sponsoring a partnership with Egyptian scholars and students to collaborate in the creation of catalogues and summaries of excavation results in order to make textual artefacts accessible to local people. It remains possible that the products of such community collaboration may not be digital, or may use digital technologies that European and North American scholars are not familiar with or used to.

I would like to point to another issue of Eurocentrism in digital papyrology, namely, the glaring absence of Egyptian-language papyri in papyrological databases. While Greek and Latin texts are systematically entered into these websites, the published Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic papyri are rarely listed in the databases, and in the few instances where they do appear, their entries never have their text embedded within the page as their Greek and Latin counterparts so frequently do. Certain Egyptian papyri are available on other databases, such as the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae (TLA), but this has a mainly German interface and is quite outdated. Egyptian-language papyri are thus even more inaccessible to interested scholars, and this is symptomatic of a larger issue with papyrology as a field, as these languages are still considered the purview of Egyptologists.[6] This is an antiquated and colonialist holdover from earlier days of papyrology, and is slowly being remedied by a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars who know Greek and Egyptian. Not only do our databases risk being inaccessible (costly subscriptions, English-only interfaces, and the specific technology required to run them), but their content is also exclusionary, containing Indo-European languages and excluding Afro-Asiatic languages. A future effort to integrate Egyptian-language texts into these databases would help remedy this issue.      

Another issue that papyrologists face is that ancient people are not alive to argue with us and advocate for themselves beyond their written words. Papyri that preserve grocery lists, accounts, and personal letters were never meant to be read outside a small circle of people in antiquity, just as our modern texts of the same genres are today. The process of humanising the people of antiquity includes a matter of respect, so would they consent to having their words broadcast to us today? Some of the sentiments found in these papyri are immensely personal, ranging from the profane (explicit sexual sketches and language) to the tender (one woman writes “Know that I am not seeing the sun because you are out of my sight; for I have no other sun if not you.”).[7] Is there a conflict inherent in telling and interpreting other people’s stories? Is there a conflict in digitising and electronically manipulating them? A question along these lines has been raised by Dr Katherine Blouin, who writes on the blog Everyday Orientalism:[8] “Our ancient interlocutors are not living bodies anymore. They cannot sign an ethics form allowing us to use their words, texts, and data.” So, what to do about this ethical question regarding subjects unable to consent? Part of a solution is to prioritise uplifting the modern inhabitants of the lands in which ancient people lived. The ancient process of papyrus-making is still in practice in modern times, and a piece published last year by Business Insider has brought this to an international audience.[9] Professors would do well to mention this modern thread when teaching their students the history of papyrology, and support this contemporary industry. 

Unfortunately, there is a notable lack of engagement with this line of scholarship. Indeed, it requires a substantial amount of cognitive dissonance for a scholar to care so deeply about the ancient inhabitants of a land but not one’s own living neighbours. In her blog post, Dr Blouin recounts an anecdote that fits within that exact line of thinking. Blouin especially emphasises the role of the earth we inhabit:

The Lands [ancient people] lived on and were buried in still exist. Many of these Lands – including Egypt – have shifted, and so have the many generations of living beings on them. But they are still here, and although thousands of papyri have been scattered throughout the world, they remain fundamentally rooted in the Land where the words they carry were penned, buried, then extracted.[10] 

To take Blouin’s point even further, one could say that the earth forever links us with a variety of communities both past and present. The plant papyrus requires cultivation and harvest before its manufacture into paper, and thus the very material we study comes from the earth. A palimpsest of peoples both ancient and modern overlay one another in the practice of papyrology, and the chronological connections we experience are made deeper when we realise our connection to each other and the earth we share. This notion reminds us of our responsibility to ensure accessibility, perform our due diligence, and include all communities when writing and studying history.   

Latent Futures, Solutions, and Conclusions

When combined with the issues of accessibility and ethics Usama Gad and Katherine Blouin have raised, my original statement about digital papyrology being a method of time travels seems a lot more naïve and idealised. While there is no doubt that digital tools revolutionise the way we practise papyrology and affect our relationship with the ancient world, we cannot be blindly optimistic about these utilities. As Ségolène M. Tarte has written in her article about the digitising of the papyrological method, “digitization is never neutral”.[11] In the process of digitisation, other questions naturally arise: if something is scanned, what should happen to the original artefact? What sorts of things are better visualised in a virtual setting and what remains inimitable? How should we treat the digital artefact versus the original? One possible solution is to coincide the temporal phenomenon inherent in digital papyrology with contemporary activism, or else we risk committing irreparable harm to marginalised and underrepresented communities. The digital can annihilate time in the field of papyrology, but our tools are only as benign as we are when we employ them. I do not mean to paint a grim picture of the future, but rather recall a pertinent section of DiSCo’s mission statement: “We are not dystopian about humanity’s technological destiny, nor do we envisage a utopic future. Rather, we believe it is of critical importance to develop and deploy innovative research processes to grapple with our new hybrid reality.”  Some of these innovative research practices that can ensure a more optimistic future are the inclusion of scholars of marginalised groups in European and American digital projects (as Gad has called for), the promotion of local collaborative work in archaeology, the advancement of ancient Egyptian language texts in existing papyrological databases, remaining in touch with the current events and culture of countries where textual artefacts come from (as Blouin suggests), and harbouring an abiding respect for the Earth- the same Earth that our ancient predecessors all walked and tilled. We ultimately miss out when the digital humanities are controlled by privileged groups in countries far from the land of origin, and scholars would do well to look to the future with a goal of accessibility. This can be accomplished first and foremost by holding a deep respect for our fellow humans both ancient and modern, and indeed, this is the best way to make digital papyrology accessible to all. We can unite in collaboration by digitising the past in a way that is accessible to all in future generations. The fate of digital papyrology is not yet settled, and the time-tangle that is intrinsic to the process of studying digital text-artefacts offers us an opportunity to reflect on the future we have the power to choose.



Leah Packard-Grams [she/her] is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology. Email: leahpackgrams [@] berkeley.edu


Figure 1. Editing and (re)arranging papyrus fragments in Photoshop.
Figure 2. Using a DinoLite digital microscope to enhance papyri.


[1]  papyri.info is the older of the two main databases and provides an essential textual search function. Trismegistos is linked to papyri.info and has additional organisational features such as a database of individual people attested in the papyri and summaries of ancient archives. 

[2] For a summary of the virtually unrolled scrolls and the problems they pose, see Brusuelas, James H. “Scholarly Editing and AI: Machine Predicted Text and Herculaneum Papyri”, magazén vol. 2 no. 1, ( 30 June 2021). See also the work of Brent Seales, mentioned therein. Brusuelas exhorts scholars to be completely transparent with metadata and documentation of their machines and artificial intelligence so there can be no doubt about the exact methods and technology employed. https://edizionicafoscari.unive.it/it/edizioni/riviste/magazen/2021/1/scholarly-editing-and-ai-machine-predicted-text-an/ 

[3]  Minnen, Peter van. “The Century of Papyrology (1892-1992).” The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 30, no. 1/2, (1993): 14. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43785997.

[4]  Minnen, Peter van. “The Future of Papyrology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. (Oxford, 2009): 644.

[5] Gad, Usama. “The digital divide and how to challenge the Eurocentric ‘exclusion zone’.” Talking Humanities (blog). (4 Apr, 2022), https://talkinghumanities.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2022/04/04/the-digital-divide-and-how-to-challenge-the-eurocentric-exclusion-zone/

[6] On the artificial divide in modern academia between “Greek papyrology” and “Egyptology”, see Hobson, Deborah. “Towards a Broader Context of the Study of Greco-Roman Egypt,”  Echos du monde classique: Classical Views XXXII, n.s. 7, no. 3, (1988): 353-363; Ritner, Robert K. “Implicit Models of Cross-Cultural Interaction: A Question of Noses, Soap, and Prejudice,” in Life in a Multicultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond, Janet Johnson, ed., SAOC 51, Chicago, (1992): 283-290.

[7] P.Oxy.3059, see Bagnall, Roger, and Rafaella Cribiore. Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt. University of Michigan, (2006): 275.

[8]  Blouin, Katherine. “Ancient texts and conference cocktail party: Some uncomfortable truths and personal thoughts.” Everyday Orientalism (blog)., (7 Mar, 2022). https://everydayorientalism.wordpress.com/2022/03/07/ancient-texts-and-conference-cocktail-party-some-uncomfortable-truths-and-personal-thoughts/

[9] Seleim, Hossam, and Dylan Barth. “Meet Some Of The Last Papyrus Makers In Egypt Keeping A 5,000-Year-Old Craft Alive.” Business Insider, 8:00, (7 April 2021). https://www.businessinsider.com/papyrus-paper-making-egypt-al-qaramous-2021-4 

[10]  Blouin, Katherine. “Ancient texts and conference cocktail party: Some uncomfortable truths and personal thoughts.” Everyday Orientalism (blog)., (7 Mar, 2022). https://everydayorientalism.wordpress.com/2022/03/07/ancient-texts-and-conference-cocktail-party-some-uncomfortable-truths-and-personal-thoughts/

[11] Tarte, Ségolène M. “Digitizing the Act of Papyrological Interpretation: Negotiating Spurious Exactitude and Genuine Uncertainty.” Literary and Linguistic Computing, vol. 26, issue 3, (September 2011): 349.