The University Record, March 19, 1996

Koenen: Papyri shows historians may be wrong about ancient city

By Mary Jo Frank
University Relations

A cache of 152 rolls of burnt papyri recently found in a Byzantine church in southern Jordan is providing scholars of antiquity a fresh view of everyday life in the once thriving city of Petra.

In his March 12 Henry Russel Lecture, papyrologist Ludwig Koenen explained how this important discovery is changing the way scholars think about life in th e region some 1,400 years ago.

When he flew to Amman in early 1994 for his first look at the papyri, Koenen said he was excited but also pessimistic about the physical condition of the rolls.

"They were deep black, fragile, and embedded in burnt debris, some single, some baked together into flat cakes. Since the papyri were rolled with the writing on the inside, I could see only a few pieces with ink. But what I saw was datable to the sixth century."

A protective crust had formed when the outer windings of the rolls were baked together with the surrounding debris, preserving their shape even when they were broken into fragments, explained Koenen, the Herbert C. Youtie Distinguished University Professor of Papyrology. Then they were buried under tons of stone, debris and sand.

Of the rolls excavated by the American Center of Oriental Research, 23 will yield partially continuous text segments and another 19 will provide fragments with substantial information, Koenen says. The archive contains documents from 528 till the reign of Tiberius Mauricius, 582­602.

Two teams, one from Finland under the direction of Jaakke Frösén, professor of the Finnish Academy and the Univer sity of Helsinki, and an American team under the direction of Koenen and Traianos Gagos, assistant professor of papyrology, have five years to decipher the texts.

"We are racing against time since we do not know much the fragments may deteriorate over time and in the climate of Amman. At the end of the project, the papyri will be handed over to the Jordanian authorities and, we hope, housed in a new m useum with a climatized room."

The burnt papyri already are debunking myths of modern historiography, which taught that Petra was destroyed by an earthquake in 551 and had lost all practical importance. In contrast, the papyri and the archaeological evidence create a picture o f Petra as a viable city throughout the sixth and into the seventh century.

The archive is thought to have been owned by the archdeacon of the "Most Holy Church" in Petra. Most of the papyrus rolls deal with important property matters: sales, testamentary bequests, dowries or divisions of property. The variou s transactions concern vineyards, sown land, orchards, apartments and stables. The world of the archives is that of well-to-do landowners, church officials, soldiers and other officers.

Of particular interest are two donations after death. Audience members chuckled when Koenen noted, "The U- M's development office will surely be delighted to hear that we could call one of these donations a 'charitable remainder trust.'" A dying man had assembled his friends and named two curators for his estate. They were ordered to take care of the li fetime needs of his mother; after her death, the remainder was to be donated to the "house of Aron" and a church-run hospice or hospital.

Koenen conjectured that the "house of Aron" could be, or at least was closely related to, a Byzantine monastery on top of Mount Haroun, the towering mountain overlooking Petra.

The papyri also have much to say about agriculture and architecture in Petra.

The rolls confirm that wine, wheat and fruits from orchards were the characteristic products of ancient desert agriculture. In general, land around Petra was measured in Roman iugera, Koenen said. However, from tax records, it appears that in so me cases Hebrew fluid measures were used to determine the size of fields.

"Measuring a field by the needed amount of seed makes sense when local conditions did not allow farmers to sow the entire area regularly. This easily occurs in desert agriculture when the amount of rain or other water changes from one year t o the next or when rocks and migrating stones and sand render part of the area infertile," he explained.

In terms of architecture, the text describes a city of irregular structures with additions wherever there was spaceoften on the roof. All houses had an internal yard around which the rooms, apartments and stables were arranged. Other common feat ures were a portico, a watch tower, staircases inside the yards and balconies. Cisterns and orchards also were mentioned.

"A dung heap stood next to a bedroom. The density of the habitation made living difficult. Therefore, it was essential to define the rights of persons in every detail. Much of the legal phraseology is standardized, as in modern contracts; and most of it is well known from Egypt," Koenen said.

Recalling a Russel Lecture given 34 years ago by his predecessor, Herbert C. Youtie, Koenen said Youtie coined the description of the papyrologist as an "artificer of fact." In the process of transcribing the ancient writing, the papyr ologist is in continuous search of the lost meaning. In doing so, the papyrologist creates the facts that subsequently serve various historical and literary disciplines as basis for their research.

"We must keep in mind that in this terminology, 'facts' are in flux," noted Koenen, who predicted scholars' understanding of Petra will continue to change with new or corrected readings.

The Henry Russel Lectureship, which has been awarded annually since 1925, is the highest honor the University can confer upon a faculty member. It is awarded for distinguished achievement in research and teaching.

Also honored at the lecture were winners of the Henry Russel Award: Dante E. Amidei, associate professor of physics, and Celeste Brusati, associate professor of history of art. The Russel Award is given to assistant or associate professors chose n for promise of distinction in scholarship and excellence in teaching.