Hidden secrets uncovered from ancient texts

October 6, 2020

Photo credit: Patricia Mora

Long before paper was invented, people wrote on a variety of materials—clay, wood, slate, parchment, and papyrus. Scholars study and decipher these documents to learn about ancient history. These complex projects can take years, and one University of Chicago professor is finalizing a lengthy edition of a Coptic papyrus that has taken nearly a decade to complete.

Sofía Torallas Tovar, Professor of Classics and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at UChicago and curator of the papyrological collections at the Abadia de Montserrat in Spain, is one of the foremost international authorities on Greek papyri. With a focus on Greek and Coptic papyrology and aspects of Graeco-Roman Egypt, she regularly partners with two archeological teams, the Swiss Institute of Archaeology and the University of Jaén, studying newly discovered pieces in their excavations in Aswan and Qubbet el Hawa. 

Currently, Torallas Tovar is working on a lengthy letter that originated in Alexandria, Egypt and was written by Athanasius, one of the most notable patriarchs from the 4th century. The contemporary document is a copy and translation into Coptic of a letter the patriarch had originally sent in Greek to a Christian community in Upper Egypt.

"It's a very interesting piece because it is not only a text but also an historical artifact, a roll, which is the format it was shared in," Torallas Tovar explained. "It is important to understand the texts within the material vehicles that transmitted them, to understand the culture of readership and circulation of documents. It is very fortunate that there is recent interest in the materiality of documents. The results are astounding."

The study of these documents is multi-layered. These ancient papyri texts are generally incomplete and fragmentary, so scholars often draw on other existing copies of the same text or parallel documents to understand them. Handwriting is often compared to help identify and date texts, as writing styles change over time. The materiality also gives hints about what the text was used for: private reading, public declamation, notes, or accounts.

Students at UChicago also have an opportunity to engage with this work. Last year, Torallas Tovar raised money from Classics, the Divinity School, the Oriental Institute, and the Joseph Regenstein Library to allow four students to work with papyri collections located in the Regenstein Library and the Oriental Institute.

"Much of my teaching focuses on how we recover literary texts and other documents, but these students were able to have first-hand learning experience digitizing, translating, and cataloguing papyri right on our campus," she said.

The field of papyrology recently began collaborating with scientists with the common goal of analyzing the materiality of these documents, such as the chemical composition of inks used in the texts. Torallas Tovar partnered with Berlin scholar Tea Ghigo on a project at the Abbey of Montserrat that involved examining texts with both IR and UV light (reflectography) and XRF spectroscopy to determine the elements that composed the ink. The process is completely harmless to the texts and offers a new collaborative element to Torallas Tovar’s work. Understanding how scribes made the inks they used and the evolution of their recipes through time helps date the text and is useful for understanding scribal practice.

"They brought this huge machine to the monastery, which was very difficult to do because of its size and the time needed to assemble it," she said. "The X-rays can determine the composition and different elements that were used to make up the ink. That process also assists me in dating my documents, along with other indicators, like the handwriting or the format of the documents or books."

Fieldwork is a huge component of Torallas Tovar’s research, and in addition to other site visits, she generally makes at least one trip to Egypt each year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her field research is on hold indefinitely. The three-foot-long letter from Alexandria she is currently working on is kept in a protective glass case at the Abbey of Montserrat. However, Torallas Tovar has been able to continue her research in spite of travel restrictions.

"Papyri are very easy to digitize, and I have wonderful photos that I've been able to work from," she said. "But many other artifacts, like potsherds, are difficult to photograph and it can take much more time to complete their study."

Torallas Tovar is also working in collaboration with Christopher Faraone, Frank and Gertrude Springer Professor in the Humanities and the College, on an edition of a collection of magical handbooks on papyrus from Greco-Roman Egypt with the support of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. This project continues moving forward due to the high-quality images the scholars have to work from.

"This project combines my expertise in papyrology with Professor Faraone's expertise in magic in antiquity," Torallas Tovar explained. "Working with Chris is fascinating because we both share deep interest for the same artifacts, but for different reasons. Magic has proven to be such a fun project to work on that we have started a new one on curses."