The Berlin Papyrus Collection

The papyrus collection of the National Museums in Berlin is the most significant papyrus collection in Germany and one of the five largest collections of its kind in the world. It contains several 10,000 papyri, 7,000 ostraka, over 1,000 pieces of parchment, around 500 pieces of paper, 200 textiles painted and written on with script, over 100 wood and wax tablets, several leather manuscripts and bindings, and some lead tablets. More than half of these texts are written in Greek, while the rest are written in Egyptian, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, and Persian. In addition, there are another 100 papyri and ostraka with drawings and paintings.

The collection houses a number of important and unique texts. Of old-Egyptian literature the collection houses two exemplary manuscripts of the Tale of Sinuhe, the “Dispute between a man and his Ba,” the “Eloquent Peasant,” and the tales of the Papyrus Westcar. Among the collection’s Greek literary papyri there is one of the world’s oldest surviving book rolls in Greek language, which dates from the 4th c. BCE and contains the musical poem of Timotheus’ ”Persians,” as well as a large fragment of the mostly lost comedy of Menander’s “Cithara Player.” Among the documentary pieces, there is a marriage contract from 310 BCE, which represents the earliest dated document written in Greek; a tax exemption from the court of Cleopatra; and the extensive papyrus roll “Gnomon of the Idios Logos,” which served as a handbook for the financial activities of a high Roman tax official, the Idios Logos. Among the Latin papyri an important fragment from a senate speech given by the emperor Claudius on judiciary reforms as well as a fragment from Cicero’s defence of Cn. Plancius are to be found.

A major part of the acquisitions of the Berlin collection derive from excavations conducted by the museum in Egypt. In this context the diggings executed by Otto Rubensohn deserve special attention: Batn el-Harit (the ancient Theadelphia in the Arsinoite nome) as well as Umm el-Bâragat (Tebtynis in the Arsinoite nome) in 1902, Abusir el-Melek (Busiris in the Herakleopolite nome) 1904, Eschmunen (Hermupolis) 1905–1906 and Elephantine (modern Geziret Assuan) 1906–1907. The collection owes further important texts to findings of Friedrich Zucker in Gharabet el-Gerza (Philadelphia in the Arsinoite nome) 1908–1909 and Dimê (Soknopaiu Nesos in the Arsinoite nome) 1909–1910. Already since 1902 the inventory was increased by the activities of the Deutsches Papyruskartell. The Kartell was established with decisive support by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorf, incidentally the son-in-law of Theodor Mommsen, to promote the interests of Prussian Universities and Museums. Representatives of the Kartell bought huge numbers of papyri and ostraka in Egypt and distributed them to the members of the Kartell in Germany, until the outbreak of World War I stopped these activities. Since all these texts come from the antiquities market, next to nothing is known about the circumstances of their discovery, and at first glance, in many cases not even their provenience is known. Donations, inheritance and purchases enlarged the collection, too. One example is the collection Wiedemann, which became already in 1889 – that is, way before the excavations of Rubensohn and the purchases of the Papyruskartell – part of the Berlin collection. Later on the collections of inter alia Ulrich Wilcken and Hugo Ibscher were added.

Further Reading

W. Müller, Die Berliner Papyrussammlung in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, Altertum 29, 1983, 133–141.

O. Primavesi, Zur Geschichte des Deutschen Papyruskartells, ZPE 114, 1996, 173–167.

G. Poethke, The Papyrus Collection of Berlin, in: W. Clarysse – H. Verreth (Hgg.), Papyrus Collections World Wide, 9–10 March 2000, Brüssel 2000, 13–15.

W. Brashear, Berlin Papyri: Past, Present and Future, in: I. Andorlini – G. Bastianini, M. Manfredi – G. Menci (Hgg.), Atti del XXII Congresso Internazionale di Papirologia. Firenze, 23-29 agosto 1998. Vol. I, Florenz 2001, 151–155.

H. Essler – F. Reiter, Die Berliner Sammlung im deutschen Papyruskartell, in: P. Schubert (Hg.), Actes du 26e Congrès international de papyrologie, Genf 2010, 213–220.