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History of the library: a group of books from Tanis in the Roman Period

In 1884 Flinders Petrie uncovered on the eastern side of the great temple at Tanis a structure which he labelled 'House 35', and identified as a private house, full of objects and papyri (Petrie 1885: 41-50, frontispiece and pl.12, nos.12, 39-40). Fragments of about 150 manuscripts on papyrus paper had been preserved, despite the Delta damp, by carbonisation in a fire that had destroyed the quarter in the mid to late second century AD. Petrie seems to have recorded no plan of the building, and the correct identification of the building remains uncertain. The objects range across all categories, from two burnishers in semi-precious stones to a statue in mixed Greek-Egyptian style inscribed in demotic for a man named Ashaikhet (misread initially as 'Bakakhuiu', giving rise to the misnaming of the find as 'the house of Bakakhuiu'). Most of the objects are now in the British Museum. The combined evidence has never been assessed in detail: is this a centre of production, such as a temple workshop, or the remains of the contents of a rich household of the late second century AD?

The manuscripts are now preserved in the British Library, except for two in the British Museum; only the two in the British Museum have been published, one with a hieroglyphic sign and word list as the 'Tanis Sign Papyrus' (British Museum ESA 10672), and the other with a tabulation of religious knowledge as the 'Tanis Geographical Papyrus' (British Museum ESA 10673). The others are only known, along with information on the archaeological context, from the publication references:

'This house stood over a large underground cellar without windows, which was reached by a staircase from the ground-floor rooms. These steps descended first toward the north, then stopping at a flat landing another flight descended to the south, on the east side of the upper flight. This lower flight had a cupboard opening on to it, which was formed in the wall beneath the upper flight. In this cupboard the waste papyri were stowed in baskets along with other rubbish, as brown jars, and a piece of bronze.' (Petrie 1885: 41)

'Of the papyri found, but little has been yet read. There were about a hundred and fifty saved from this house; they appear to have been all waste papers, roughly shoved into six plaited baskets, without any care or order. They are of all kinds - hieroglyphic and hieratic, with vignettes and rubircs, fine uncial Greek, demotic memoranda, receipts, and legal papers of various sorts; some rolls, some documents of a few columns, some mere scraps of a few lines. The rolls have been flattened and crushed by the ohter papers, the folded slips have been twisted across, and the whole has served as a nest for mice, who have brought in almonds and hazel nuts, the broken shells of which I found amid the documents. Unhappily most of the basketfulls had been burnt to white ash in the conflagration of the house; but about a quarter of the whole bulkl remains, reduced to black tinder, but still legible. The greater part of this, however, is made up of fragments of larger rolls, and nearly all the papyri have suffered more or less by cracking to pieces at the folds. Bad as is the condition of these remains, yet it is far better than if they had not been burnt, as in the neighbouring house some unburnt examples were found which have so completely rotted from damp that they fall to powder with the gentlest handling. We cannot hope to obtain better papyri than these throgouhly-burnt examples from such a wet district as San. That these papyri are of various ages is shown by the names that have been already observed - Hadrian, the Emperor Titus, and on a demotic papyrus one of the Ptolemies.' (Petrie 1885: 42)

'In the house of Bakakhuiu nothing from Greece or Italy was found; the only foreign influence was Syrian, and the papyri were nearly all demotic, only a small proportion being in Greek, such as would naturally accrue in course of business.' (Petrie 1885: 46)

'The best preserved papyri are stiff, with a shiny surface, as if blackleaded; the ink is black, or yellowish where it was originally red. They have been thoroughly charred; most in fact have had the largest part burnt away. All, except two, are from the house of Bakakhuiu, whose numerous rolls contained religious as well as legal texts. Some were, perhaps, connected with the plans of a new or restored temple. The geographical and other lists in the papyrus, which Mr. Petrie has copied (No. 103), with the scraps of a similar one (nos.130 and 131), where the entries of nomes, feasts, marshlands, etc., are corrected by notes in minute hieratic at the foot, and especially the columns of hieroglyphics in papyrus 118, in which the gods grant divine gifts to a king or emperor, whose cartouche is unfortunately left blank, seem as if they were sketches and notes to be expanded on some temple-wall at Tanis.' (Griffith/Petrie1889: 2; the plates indicate that the 'Sign Papyrus' was from Papyrus No.80, and on p.3 it is confirmed that it too 'was found in the house of Bakakhuiu').



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