Fragile, ancient manuscripts are often difficult to locate and examine, as well as decipher. Now, texts that shed light on ancient Greek and Egyptian life and broaden understanding of the multicultural world of antiquity are about to make their debut on the World Wide Web.
Experts at the six American institutions with the most extensive collections of papyri are collaborating to make the fragile materials available online. The effort, known as the Advanced Papyrological Information System, or APIS, unites scholars at Columbia, Duke, Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan and Yale. The Université Libre de Bruxelles is cooperating in the project.
The six collections contain some 30,000 items, about 10 percent of known papyrological archives worldwide, and consist of documents from daily life -- tax records and legal files -- as well as literary works. The majority of surviving texts are from the late 4th century B.C. to the middle of the 8th century A.D.
The team, led by Roger Bagnall, professor of classics and history and chairman of the Department of Classics at Columbia, hopes over a four-year period to produce an innovative electronic catalogue with links to images, bibliography, text and published literature. An initial step will be to catalog, conserve and digitally image boxes of materials that have in some cases lain undisturbed for 30 or more years, work that will take skilled papyrologists hundreds of hours. An early version of APIS is to be available by next fall.
The National Endowment for the Humanities has given $300,000 for the first two-year development phase, a step toward the $3 million Professor Bagnall estimates is needed to create a fully developed system.
Columbia is among a handful of institutions promoting digital access and preservation of humanities research and education materials. In 1995, the NEH awarded a $575,000 Challenge Grant to Columbia's Media Center for Art History, which has completed its first project, an online multimedia representation of Amiens Cathedral, studied as part of Columbia's Art Humanities curriculum. The Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College has initiated a Digital Dante Project, with rare manuscripts, orations and illustrations that will be used by high school students as well as scholars. Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library is collaborating with Berkeley on a "Digital Scriptorium" of medieval manuscripts.
Much of this work is motivated by the University's desire to create digital libraries, and it has established a Center for Research in Information Access to research technology and intellectual property questions.
Scholars in fields concerned with antiquity have not made as extensive use of papyri as they might because the documents are hard to locate, examine, and work with. Often fragments are scattered across two or three collections. The electronic catalog will change that situation, Professor Bagnall said, because all the most important materials will be available and connected on a single system.
"APIS will not only transform instruction and research in papyrology, but for the first time will make papyrological records readily accessible to nonspecialists," Professor Bagnall said. "It will serve as a model to other humanistic disciplines, both in its collaborative creation of field-wide standards and in its integration of different types of information resources."
The system will be a comprehensive electronic information system, including images, texts, catalogue records and bibliography, linked by hypertext markers so users can move easily from one type of material to another. It will create a standard for this type of system worldwide, Professor Bagnall said, pointing out that several European institutions have already sought to join it.
Though there is considerable value in examining ancient materials firsthand, few researchers have time to visit many collections. APIS will use high-quality, digital images, sometimes paired with specialized techniques such as multispectral imaging, in which infrared radiation is used to illuminate different layers of text. The technique, developed at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been used successfully to read fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Researchers will also be able to manipulate APIS images, not possible with actual objects or photographs.
Papyrus, a thick paper made by beating together slices of reed, was invented in Egypt about 3000 BC or earlier. It was the most important writing material of the ancient world, recording everything from high literature to business transactions and schoolchildren's exercises. Though papyrus was used in ancient Europe, most of what survives is from Syria or Egypt, where a dry climate preserved the vegetative material. Other writing materials that have survived include parchment made from sheep's hide, and ostraca, shards of pottery or flakes of limestone that were scooped up from trash and reused.
The six American institutions acquired large parts of their collections by making purchases from antiquities dealers early in this century; Berkeley's is the only one assembled entirely from Egyptian excavations.
About a tenth of the papyri in all known collections are fragments of literature, either a far more ancient witness to a work known otherwise from medieval manuscripts or a text hitherto lost in antiquity. Modern scholars have recovered from papyri such important lost works as the lyrics of Sappho, the orations of Hyperides, the Constitution of the Athenians by Aristotle and early Christian and Gnostic works that once competed with the New Testament.
But the other nine-tenths of these published texts are private letters, records or documents of every conceivable sort: legal and business papers, government regulations, property records, tax and rent receipts, bank deposits and payments, and farm and crop reports. "The papyri are thus a source of a large part of what we know about many aspects of antiquity, particularly those concerned with economic life, social relations, cultural interactions in a pluralistic society and daily life," Professor Bagnall said. "As such, they provide a unique and valuable window onto antiquity."