We are very fortunate to have welcomed Dr Dirk Obbink, specialist in Papyrology from the University of Oxford, to deliver workshops in the past few weeks to Year 8 Latinists and Year 12 Classical Civilisation students.
In his workshops, Dr Obbink began by introducing the papyrus plant and explaining how this is used to create papyrus. He then explained how papyri were used by Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to record texts, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, scientific texts, such as Pliny the Elder's Natural Histories and the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
He showed the classes how the papyrus would have been read - by unfurling it from one end to the other - and explained how the papyri were written upon by specially trained slaves. He showed an image of an Egyptian scribe sitting cross-legged and using his tunic has a writing surface; he explained how some scribes would fall asleep in the heat of the sun and there would be evidence of this on papyri where the ink had been smudged!
A replica inkwell and wax tablet was passed round, complete with styli, while Dr Obbink explained how writers would often write on wax tablets first, which could be smoothed over and written on over again. Scribes would then copy everything up onto the papyri.
He had brought a beautiful fragment of book thirteen of the Iliad which was passed around. Our collection at the Rumble Museum includes a papyrus fragment of an Egyptian tax return, and Dr Obbink explained how this was written in a very different, everyday handwriting, rather than the stylised 'font' used by the scribes on the Iliad papyri rolls.
Finally, everyone was able to write the first few lines of the Antigone onto a piece of modern papyrus. Dr Obbink also raised very interesting topics, such as how many works of literature were lost each time the technology for preserving written texts advanced, and how this might be the same for literature that is not digitalised over the next ten years.
We are very grateful to Dr Obbink for bringing such an interesting range of artefacts and for delivering such informative sessions.
Rumble Museum volunteers will have the opportunity to explore manuscripts at Merton College on 9th February as part of a wider museum project on writing through the ages.