Of all tales of archaeological discovery, the story of Nag Hammadi is hands down the most exciting.
In one version told by the discoverer himself, Muhammad Ali was digging for fertiliser when he came upon an earthenware pot containing 13 books. His companions either ran in horror thinking it might contain evil spirits. In another version they were not interested saying the books belonged to the Christians, “It’s nothing to do with us”.
During the course of his discovery he killed a man to avenge the murder of his father. He said “with my knife I cut out his [victim’s] heart and ate it”. After release from jail, Ali found his mother had burned some of the papers for fuel. In one version, he quickly pulled the books out just as his mother was putting them in the oven.
Such breathless accounts of discovery seem to predominate in the field of papyrology.
Many competing stories seem to circulate around particular finds. In 1941, books were found in an abandoned quarry. In one story the Egyptian workers tasked with clearing the rubble from the site used some of the papyrus to make a fire for their coffee. In another version, they immediately called the police.
It is an old trope that has antecedents in narratives from the time of Elgin when European visitors complained that locals would grind down classical sculpture for lime. It was more likely that sculpture was damaged to sell to the European visitors, who justified their acquisitions as a way of protecting antiquities.
These stories obscure a very important fact about many ancient items, especially papyus, and that is the uncertainty of provenance. Knowing exactly where an archaeological item was found is very important to begin understanding an item’s role within a society. So many important books were not discovered by archaeologists, but instead were bought on the antiquities market.
The truth was that most people in Egypt knew the monetary and historic value of papyrus. The stories possibly obscured the true places of discovery or maybe were just what European customers wanted to hear. Nongbri calls these acts “everyday forms of resistance”.
Papyrology, the study of ancient papyrus, has brought new insight into ancient society and culture. Although other materials were used including parchment (animal skins) and ostraca (ceramics), Papyrus was the paper of the ancient world. It was made from the reeds which were abundant in Egypt. Organic material, such as the plant fibres used to make the papyrus sheets, survives in extreme conditions – extreme cold, extreme dryness and where there is no oxygen (anaerobic, such as bogs). Due to it’s hot climate and low rainfall, Egypt is particularly rich in this kind of evidence.
Papyrus can over provide a limited but incredibly valuable insight into a society and culture. The majority of papyrus (with a clear provenance) is found after being thrown away – on ancient rubbish heaps or as scrap paper for other purposes (such as stiffening books). Roman Egypt was a very bureaucratic society and people kept records of transactions and legal deals. Papyrus can provide insight into the governance and economies in Egypt.
Most people however, are more excited by discoveries of unknown texts. Plays, poems and “secret gospels” have all been uncovered. Yet it is important to remember that not all pieces of ancient literature ended up in the trash and not all pieces of papyrus that ended up in the trash have survived. Added to this is the fact that universities and museums around the world hold extensive papyrus collections which means that there are still texts waiting to be read. To this extent then, we must be careful to ascribe too much value to papyrus as fully representative of ancient culture.
It is however in the field of New Testament studies that papyrology creates the most excitement. On one hand there are sensationalist news stories, like the publication of the Gospel of Judas by National Geographic in 2006. On the other hand, there is a desire for older texts which means that scholars and institutions are likely to err on the earlier date ranges.
An examination of what texts have survived is revealing. The Shepherd of Hermas, which might almost be called an early Christian novel from the second or third centuries CE, is one of the most common books. Ten copies have survived. More than the Psalms, Genesis and the letter to the Romans. Only Matthew and John have survived in more copies.
The Book of Revelation has survived in five copies, even though it was not valued as much as other apocalypses found in the Bible. Perhaps we see here the influence of Athanasius, the powerful Archbishop of Alexandria who created the first list of canonical texts.
Brent Nongbri in his book wants to reintroducing books as archaeological items, by examining the modern archival evidence from museums to discover – where possible – the provenance of items and where this is not possible to correct erroneous provenances which have in some cases become the foundation of historical theories.
Nag Hammadi and Bodmer
A perfect example of this is his tireless study of the Bodmer Papyrus.
Martin Bodmer was a Swiss collector who wished to amass a collection of world literature. In 1953 he bought, through his assistant Odile Bongard, a collection from Phocion Tano, the person who also sold the Nag Hammadi collection. Tano told Bongard that it was from Asyut but “begged” her not to reveal that for 20 years. 20 years later, an American scholar interviewed two people who discovered the books in a narrative very similar to Muhammed Ali’s. In this case the story included a kidnapping attempt “gone wrong”.
The Bodmer collection contains a disparate set of texts including fragments from the Old and New Testaments, apocryphal or non-canonical texts, the plays of Menander and Cicero. Texts which may come from the same ancient collection, but are now held separately, include letters of St Pachomius (an influential abbot) amongst other Christian materials held in the Bodmer collection.
It has been presumed that some items from the Bodmer collection and the Nag Hammadi came from the same provenance. This is partly based on the fact that both collections were sold at almost the same time and to similar collections.
For the most part the twelve and a half books found at Nag Hammadi contain Gnostic texts. The sixth book (Codex VI) might reflect the variety of the Bodmer Collection. It is the most intriguing of all the books found at Nag Hammadi. Not because it contains otherwise unknown texts, but because it contains texts known from other sources including three Hermetic texts and an excerpt of Plato’s Republic. It is in this book, that was found Thunder, Perfect Mind a text which may allude to earlier poetry praising the goddess Isis.
Intriguingly, a fragment of a single page from Zostrianos, a text also found at Nag Hammadi, might have come from the ancient collection of which part then became the Bodmer Collection.
Nongbri argues that whilst Nag Hammadi can be linked to monks under the order of St Pachomius, it is not so clear from the other books in the Bodmer collection. He argues these could instead belong to a rich collector of exotica or the manager of a scriptorium building a collection which suits the needs of his local customers. Yet there is of course a tension here between the book as object and the book as text but by focusing on the books as archaeological items, Nongbri can glean insights that supplements close reading of the texts.
Nongbri’s book is an excellent introduction to papyrology for people interested in the field. The first two chapters survey the contemporary field and analyse the techniques of practitioners. He describes book binding, palaeography, radiocarbon dating and the science of ink composition in a fluent manner. This provides a basis on which to challenge some of the more popular misrepresentations of the field. It proves to be a fascinating read and a necessary one given the excitement generated in the press by papyrological discoveries. It it also written from the context of reexamining archaeological records from a position critical of the colonial assumptions and inequalities which prevailed for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and which still permeate some universities and museums today.