Frequently Asked Questions

    About Roman Egypt
    About Papyri
    About Papyrology
    About the Robert C. Horn Papyri
    About This Site

    About Roman Egypt

    • Were Roman Egyptians like the ancient Egyptians?
      Roman Egyptians were close descendants of ancient Egyptians, but with some differences. Ancient Egypt was influenced by ancient sea peoples, Nubians, Assyrians, Libyans, Hittites, Persians, and others, but remained a distinctive culture and retained its language. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, significant changes occurred: Greek became more and more widely spoken in succeeding centuries, and especially with the arrival of the Romans following 30 BC, the population became more and more mixed. Cultural customs, religions, and ways of doing business absorbed habits and traditions from outside of Egypt, often in distinctive ways: the ancient goddess Serapis seems to us half Egyptian and half Greek, a version of the goddess Athena.
    • What languages were spoken by Roman Egyptians?
      Roman Egyptians usually spoke Coptic, a descendant of ancient Egyptian. Coptic originally was written using a version of hieroglyphics, but then adopted the Greek alphabet with certain changes. Many Roman Egyptians also spoke Greek, especially if they were involved in trade or government, and a few knew Latin, the formal language of the Romans. The official language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire was Greek, but it also used Latin.
    • What happened to Oxyrhynchus? Was it abandoned?
      The site of the city of Oxyrhynchus was never completely abandoned although its population undoubtedly shrank after Arab Muslims took political control in 641 AD and the canal system upon which the city depended fell into disrepair. The town of El-Bahnasa came to occupy a portion of the site of the ancient city, which has never been fully excavated.
    • What has happened since Roman Egyptian times at the site?
      Very little remains above ground of ancient Oxyrhynchus. The British archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie reported seeing ruins of the colonnades and civic theatre in 1922, but it has been reported that now only a single column remains, the rest having been quarried for building materials for modern structures.


    About Papyri

    • What is papyrus and who discovered it could be used for documents?
      Papyrus is a wetland sedge plant (Cyperus papyrus). The pith (spongy central cylinder of the stem) is cut into long strips, set as a layer side-by-side, and another layer of strips is set right angles on top of the first. The layers are then soaked in water, mashed together with hammers, dried under pressure, and after drying finished to a smooth service using a hand-tool such as shell or wood. It is not known when papyrus first came into use. A similar material seems to have been used in the ancient Phonecian town of Biblos, from which the Greeks obtained the material, and borrowed the name of the city as the Greek word for book.
    • Where was papyrus used in the ancient world?
      Papyrus was most often used in Egypt, and shipped for use in many other parts of the ancient world, including ancient Europe. Most papyrus documents were first on loose sheets or sewn or glued together into scrolls, and later were folded into quires to form codex “books” as moderns known them.
    • What other materials did people use for writing?
      Other ancient materials for writing included stone or hard durable surfaces (for public commemorations or proclamations), and parchment. Parchment is calf-skin stretched, dried, scraped, and finished into a smooth and very durable writing surface. Since papyri is liable to decomposition from dampness, far more late-ancient and medieval materials have survived on parchment than papyrus, which could only survive for a long time in very dry and nearly anaerobic conditions such as the desert sands outside of Oxyrhynchus. Paper (cellulose from rice or wood pulp) originated in China; Arabs popularized it throughout the Mediterranean world. Still other ancient materials were palm leaves, wood, clay, and wax tablets, and ostraka (clay shards).
    • How many ancient papyri are there, and how many from Oxyrhynchus?
      There is no firm count of the total number of ancient papyri from all sources. Approximately 500,000 papyrus fragments were excavated at Oxyrhynchus; hence the Muhlenberg collection comprises just about .000072 of the whole, and no firm historical conclusions can be drawn from a sample so small!
    • Why are some papyri presented in recto/verso order, and others verso/recto order?
      When a sheet of papyrus is made, the smoother side with the grain of the papyrus stems running horizontally is the “recto” or “right side” --the other side, a little rougher, with the grain of the stems running vertically, is the “verso” or “other side.” Loose papyrus sheets, or sheets sewn into scrolls, are usually presented in recto/verso order since that would have been the obvious choice of the scribe. When papyrus is folded into quires to form codex books, the verso of a folded sheet may occur before the recto –hence those leaves from books (or “codices” in the plural) may be presented in verso/recto order if the sense and structure of the contents requires it.


    About Papyrology

    • What is papyrology? Where do papyrologists study and work?
      Papyrology is the study of ancient texts and documents written on papyrus manuscripts. It involves the interpretation and translation of the contents, the preservation of the papyrus fragments, and considerable detective work in piecing together which fragments may belong together, where they are from, and what their original purpose was.
    • What languages do papyrologists have to know?
      Papyrologists typically have to know several ancient languages, such as Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Coptic, as well as modern languages used in scholarship, particularly German, French, and Italian. Arabic is increasingly useful as well. Papyrology is a world-wide discipline, and multi-lingual publication is common.
    • How do papyrologists preserve the papyri?
      Preservation is a science and art which has progressed greatly since the original excavations. Since many papyri were taken to European centers such as Paris, Berlin, and Oxford, which have far more humid climates than Egypt, preservation began very early. Typically papyri have been gently cleaned, pressed and sealed under glass. Such glass “sandwiches” are then stored carefully away from any kind of light which can cause fading. More recently synthetic materials such as polyester and Stabiltex have been used to construct preservative enclosures. (See this link for further information: )
    • How can papyrologists decipher ancient hand-writing?
      The study and reading of ancient writing is called paleography or palaeography –literally “old writing.” It is an essential skill for historians and philologists – those who study very old texts. Such texts often use abbreviations, letter forms, and other conventions different from modern expectations. Such differences, however, also allow a piece of writing to be assigned date and place of origination (provenance) when such information is not explicitly declared in the contents. Learning to decipher very old writing (paleography) is an art and skill requiring long practice, great patience, and constant effort.
    • Where can I learn more about papyrology?
      In addition to readings suggested here, several North American universities have extensive papyri collections and programs of graduate study, in particular Princeton, Columbia, the University of Michigan, Duke, and Yale (in no particular order). In preparation for studying papyrology, undergraduates typically must study ancient languages and literatures, history, art, and geography – and some basic organic chemistry and plant biology is helpful as well.


    About the Robert C. Horn Papyri

    • How did these papyri come to Muhlenberg College?
      The excavations carried out by Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt were supported by the Egypt Exploration Fund, to which many individuals contributed. Robert C. Horn, a professor of the Greek Language and Literature at Muhlenberg College was one such contributor. Beginning in 1900, pieces of papyri were sent to subscribers in proportion to their contribution. In 1915, Professor Horn was sent thirty-six pieces of papyri from Oxyrhynchus, and thus they arrived at Muhlenberg.
    • Who was Robert Chisolm Horn?
      Robert Chisolm Horn (1881-1959) was a renowned authority on Greek literature and art. A 1900 Muhlenberg College graduate, he received his master’s from Harvard University in 1904, and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1926. He spent his entire working career at Muhlenberg, beginning in 1904 as instructor of Greek. He went on to become Professor of the Greek Language and Literature, head of the Classics department, Dean of the College, and Vice President, and served as acting President as well. In addition to being a respected scholar of the classics and ancient history, Professor Horn was also regarded as the resident expert on Muhlenberg College history.
    • How are the papyri kept safe?
      The Robert C. Horn Papyri Collection is part of the Rare Book Collection at Trexler Library, Muhlenberg College. The papyri are individually wrapped and placed in an archival box which is stored in a secure, climate controlled storage area in the library.
    • Can I see the real papyri?
      Yes! Requests to view the papyri can be made by coming to the Special Collections and Archives office in Trexler Library and filling out a request form before the pieces can be retrieved from storage.


    About This Site

    • How can I get a computer font so that I can see the papyri better?
      Current web browsers (such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, or Chrome) should resolve Greek letters properly.  Accented Greek letters, however, may not be properly visible, especially if the browser’s default font size is size 10 or less.
      If you cannot satisfactorily view Greek text in this web site :

      • Increase your default font size in your web browser to size 12 or 14 or larger
      • Choose a different font: CG Times, Times New Roman, Garamond, or Book Antiqua.  Helvetica, Lucida, Verdana, and Arial fonts tend not to display Greek characters and accents properly.  One of the best fonts is Vusillus, if you have it
      • Find a free Greek-Roman font. Some good candidates can be found here:

      This web site is presented to each user’s web browser using the encoding standard called UTF-8 (Unicode computer encoding for 8-bit character conversion and presentation).  This is a so-called “backward-compatible” scheme which will correctly present characters for most languages of the world (including Ancient Greek).

    • Who made this site?
      The content for this site was created in 2006-2008 by Dr. Gavin Ferriby, a librarian who previously served Trexler Library as Systems and Electronic Resources Librarian (2001-2006). Dr. Ferriby has a Ph.D. in Church History from Princeton Theological Seminary, with extensive undergraduate and graduate work in Classical languages. His dissertation is titled: The development of liturgical symbolism in the early works of Amalarius of Metz (ca. 775-ca. 850). He currently serves as Associate University Librarian at Sacred Heart University. The site editor was Ms. Diane Koch, Special Collections and Archives Librarian at Trexler Library. Web design and development for the site was provided by Ms. Mary Moulton, former Head of Library Systems and Information Transfer Services at Trexler Library.