In the mid twentieth century, the University of Toronto built a new library to house its vast research collections. Today, Robarts Library is not only known as one of the largest university libraries in North America, but also impresses with its brutalist architecture. The Nile Scribes recently visited a collection of Egyptian papyri in possession of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, a feature of Robarts Library. This blog is the first in a series on this collection.
The University of Toronto was founded as King’s College in a close relationship with the Church of England in 1827. It was not until 1850 that the college was renamed the University of Toronto and attained a non-denominational status. Over the course of the following decades, the university merged with colleges of various Christian faiths, adding the Roman-Catholic affiliated St. Michael’s College in 1890. The same year, Victoria University, which was originally founded in Cobourg, Ontario in 1836, also federated with the university.
History of the Victoria University Papyri
In the early 1900s, a collection of over 30 papyri was given to Victoria University from excavations conducted at El-Hibeh, Oxyrhynchus, and areas of the Fayum by the Egypt Exploration Fund. The Fund (precursor to today’s Egypt Exploration Society) was established in 1882 to finance archaeological fieldwork in Egypt and many of the discoveries that were unearthed were shared between the subscribed institutions. Thanks in part to Charles T. Currelly, one of the founders of the Royal Ontario Museum and a Victoria alumnus, Victoria University helped finance several excavations in Egypt and was granted ownership of some newly discovered papyri in return. In 1977, Victoria University transferred its collection of papyri on a permanent loan basis to the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library where they are still housed today, catalogued as the Manuscript Collection 175.
The Rare Books Library also contains the Classics Department Papyrus Collection which was transferred here in 2004 (1). This collection arrived at the university in 1966 with the appointment of Alan E. Samuel as Professor of Greek and Roman History who had amassed a personal collection of papyri.
Papyrus Hibeh I 54
The majority of Manuscript Collection 175 originated from Fayum sites such as Theadelphia, Oxyrhynchus, and Philoteris. Hibeh I 54 is the only papyrus in the collection from el-Hibeh, a Middle Egyptian site that was excavated by the papyrologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt in 1902-03. Grenfell and Hunt discovered over a hundred documents on papyri in 1902 which they published in The Hibeh Papyri. These papyri did not originate from an urban context as one might expect, but from a funerary one: the Ptolemaic cemetery at el-Hibeh.
After Grenfell and Hunt were informed of a plundered cemetery near the modern village of el-Hibeh, they left the Fayum to begin a new project in what they identified as a Ptolemaic cemetery. They were hopeful of uncovering papyri from the cartonnage of mummy burials and they were successful in finding demotic, Greek, and Roman papyri. From the cartonnage of mummy A9, at least 16 papyri containing letters were discovered, including Hibeh I 54 now in the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library. These papyri from mummy A9 are now scattered throughout collections in the UK, Canada, Egypt, Belgium, and the United States.
Hibeh I 54 contains a letter to a well-known individual named Ptolemaeus, who lived during the reigns of Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes. The letter contains instructions sent to him concerning preparations for a festival:
“Demophon to Ptolemaeus, greeting. Make every effort to send me the flute-player Petous with both the Phrygian flutes and the rest; and if any expense is necessary, pay it, and you shall recover it from me. Send me also Zenobius the effeminate with a drum and cymbals and castanets, for he is wanted by the women for the sacrifice; and let him wear as fine clothes as possible. Get the kid also from Aristion and send it to me; and if you have arrested the slave, deliver him to Semphtheus to bring to me. Send me as many cheese as you can, a new jar, vegetables of all kinds, and some delicacies if you have any. Good-bye. Put them on board with the guards who will assist in bringing the boat.” (2)
The verso of the cartonnage easily demonstrates the way that discarded papyri could be reused by the ancient Egyptians to create objects for burial: a protective casing over the mummy, similar to papier-mâché. These letters, no longer needed by their recipient, were layered face-down to create a mummy case that was then brightly painted with scenes of deities and motifs of rebirth and regeneration.
B. Grenfell & A. Hunt. The Hibeh Papyri, Part I. London: EEF Graeco-Roman Branch, 1906. (letter #54)
- The collection was studied in detail as part of a M.A. thesis by Clare Barker. Their research, completed at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario in 2014, is available online through QSpace and photographs with detailed information can also be found via the University of Toronto Library website.
- Translated by Grenfell and Hunt in The Hibeh Papyri, p. 201.