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The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection and Project

Andet forskningsprojekt | 07/07/2017

Papyrus Carlsberg 861

More than five millennia ago, a dual set of inventions would transform society radically and mark the first transition from prehistory into the historical era; the development of the hieroglyphic script alongside the use of ink and papyrus in Egypt and the development of the cuneiform script and writing tablets of clay in Mesopotamia. The advent of writing allowed information to be expanded beyond the mental capacity of any single individual and to be shared across time and space.
By Professor Kim Ryholt, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen.

The plant fibre medium of papyrus had certain advantages over clay tablets. Above all, it could accommodate far more text and was much lighter in weight, and in the course of the first millennium BC the technology of ink and papyrus spread first to the Greeks and later the Roman, and came to dominate the written cultures of the Mediterranean. It does, however, also have a major disadvantage that is felt acutely by the modern historian: it is vulnerable towards humidity, and hardly any papyri survive outside the arid Egyptian climate. Although the Roman imperial machine will have consumed millions of papyri for its administration and communication, no more than a single discovery has ever been made in Italy, albeit a very spectacular one (the Herculanum Papyri), and only a single papyrus has so far been found in Greece. By contrast, the remains of about half a million papyri have been excavated in Egypt.

The birth of papyrology

Fig. 1. Niels Iversen Schow (1754-1830). Image courtesy of the Royal Library.

The first attempt to learn about the ancient world through the study of a papyrus was made by the Danish classicist Niels Iversen Schow (1754-1830; fig. 1). In 1787, he went to Italy where he soon made the acquaintance of Cardinal Stefano Borgia through his friend Georg Zoëga. The cardinal had a papyrus in his possession, which had been acquired in Egypt by a merchant, and Schow undertook to edit the Greek text. His edition was already published the following year. The year 1788 — and Schow’s achievement — marks the official birth of the field of Papyrology, the study of the ancient world through papyrus manuscripts. The papyrus turned out to preserve receipts for work on the irrigation dikes in the town of Tebtunis in 193 CE. By coincidence, the bulk of the papyri later acquired by the Carlsberg Foundation comes from this same town, whose texts have since been one of the main focuses for Danish Egyptological research. Schow was later elected member of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Letters, and subsequently became professor of archaeology and classical philology at the University of Copenhagen. But Schow never edited another papyrus — perhaps because there were no papyri in Denmark at the time.

Papyri in Denmark

The first papyrus to arrive in Denmark was a gift from the Queen of Naples, Napoleon’s sister, Carolina Bonaparte, to King Fredrik VI in 1810. The charred and fragmentary papyrus was part of the famous library that had been discovered at the so-called villa dei papiri at Herculanum in the 1750s. This is the only known discovery of papyri in Italy, and the documents have only survived because they underwent a process of carbonisation (and thus became resistant to rot) when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, and the town was destroyed. The next papyrus to arrive was a large, well-preserved Book of the Dead written in the hieratic script and accompanied by numerous illustrations, which was donated to the Royal Danish Encyclopedic Collection (Det Kgl. Danske Kunstkammer) by the General Consul in Alexandria, Daniel Dumreicher, in 1821.

Fig. 2. H. O. Lange (1863-1943). Image courtesy of the Royal Library.

While some further papyri arrived during the 19th and early 20th century, the establishment of an actual papyrus collection did not occur until 1920. This year, Johannes Pedersen, who would later become professor of Semitic philology at the University of Copenhagen and president of the Royal Academy of Sciences, went to Egypt to study at the famous al-Azhar University with a grant from the Carlsberg Foundation. The Egyptologist and head of the Royal Library, H. O. Lange (1863-1943; fig. 2), had long desired for a collection that could become the focus of Danish Egyptological research. He seized this opportunity and secured additional funding from the Carlsberg Foundation for the acquisition of papyri, and the task was entrusted to Pedersen. A shipment of more than 300 papyri arrived in Copenhagen the following year, but it had proved difficult to find papyri inscribed in the ancient Egyptian scripts, and nearly all of them were Greek. The study of the papyri was taken up by Carsten Høeg, who received further funding for the acquisition of Greek papyri in 1929 and 1930. These three acquisitions, along with a few other items, were kept at the Royal Library until 1932, when they were officially donated to the University of Copenhagen and became the Papyrus Hauniensis Collection.

A second collection was established around the same point in time. Lange, who in the meantime had founded the Egyptological Institute at the university and become its first professor, received news in 1931 of the discovery of an Egyptian temple library, which was for sale on the antiquities market. This was his first chance to acquire a substantial collection of Egyptian papyri, after thirty years of waiting, and the Carlsberg Foundation again provided the necessary funding. As it happened so often in the antiquities trade, the original find had been split up, and several further batches appeared on the market through the following years. However, Lange was able to acquire nearly all of the material that came to his attention. The last parts of the temple library were acquired in 1939, and that same year, this second collection was similarly donated to the university and was eventually named the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection.

The two collections were located in different parts of Copenhagen until the 1980s, when both Classical Philology and Egyptology moved to what is now known as the Southern Campus on the island of Amager. Finally, in 2013, they were united in a room build for the purpose in the new university buildings. In the following, and for the sake of convenience, the merged collections will be described in the singular.

The collection

Fig. 3. Map of Egypt indicating the origin of manuscripts from the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. Based on map by Jeff Dahl, Wikimedia Commons, 22. Nov. 2007.

The papyrus collection encompasses some 1400 manuscripts spanning three millennia from 2000 BC until 1000 CE, with a few parchments and paper items of a later date. They display a wide geographical spread with most of Egypt represented, in addition to the single papyrus from Herculanum in Italy (fig. 3). The majority of the manuscripts date back to the Greco-Roman period, and derive from the Fayum Oasis, above all the town of Tebtunis.

At the centre of the collection are the remains of the Tebtunis temple library, a unique archaeological discovery that represents the only large-scale institutional library preserved from ancient Egypt. The papyri, which date back to the first two centuries of the Common Era, were found in cellars below a building within the temple enclosure, where they had been left when the temple was abandoned in the early third century AD. Estimated at several hundred manuscripts, this is the richest assemblage of Egyptian literary papyri known to date. It preserves a broad range of texts, including detailed manuals on the performance of various rituals, religious compendia and treatises, scientific texts concerned with divination and medicine, and narrative literature (fig. 4-5). The texts shed detailed light on the operation of a temple and its priesthood, and many of the literary works are otherwise unknown.

Fig. 4. Papyrus Carlsberg 1 is inscribed with a fundamental treatise on the celestial bodies known as the Book of Nut, second century AD. The Tebtunis temple library held several versions of the text, which is first attested nearly 1,500 years earlier in the reign of Sety I where it was engraved in stone in the underground temple of Osiris at Abydos. A master version from the library was written in hieroglyphs and included detailed illustrations, while other simpler versions contained only the text and were written in the hieratic script. The version here shown contains both the original text in the hieratic script and later commentary on the ancient composition written in demotic. Acquired 1931 by the Carlsberg Foundation. Image courtesy of the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection.

Because of the temple library, the collection is one of the largest within Egyptian narrative literature as well as medical and divinatory literature. The medical corpus is complemented by two manuscripts of New Kingdom date (1550-1070 CE), one of which was acquired as late as 2015 through the generosity of the Augustinus and Carlsberg Foundations, as well as texts in Coptic and Greek. The collection furthermore houses several Greek literary works from authors such as Homer, Demosthenes, Menander, Philo Iudaeus, Sappho, and Thucydides.

Fig. 6. The temple of Edfu ranks among the best-preserved monuments from ancient Egypt. In 2001 it was discovered that the 9-meter long but poorly preserved Papyrus Carlsberg 409 was inscribed with accounts relating to the construction of the temple’s pronaos (seen in the image). Dated to the reign of Ptolemy VIII, more specifically 131 BC, the accounts provide the names of the actual stone masons responsible for building this part of the temple, a form of information that is usually unavailable to the historian. Commercial photograph by Felix Bonfils, c. 1870.

The collection also provides a rich source for the study of various social aspects of life in ancient Egypt. The papyri derive from remarkably varied social and historical contexts, and include both institutional and private archives. In addition to the temple library, there are documents from an imperial tax office at Thmuis in the Egyptian Delta, which was deliberately destroyed under unknown circumstances around 200 CE; an archive of accounts from the famous temple of Edfu from the reign of Ptolemy VIII (2nd cent. BC; fig. 6); an archive of still unpublished documents from a prison somewhere in the Fayum; an archive of so-called self-dedications[1] from the above-mentioned temple of Tebtunis (2nd cent. BC); and an archive from the Monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit (8th cent. BC). The private archives belong to such varied individuals as the wealthy anonymous Roman who lived in the luxurious Villa dei papiri at Herculanum in Italy (1st cent. CE); a family of managers of imperial estates (5th-7th cent. AD); a wealthy woman from Oxyrhynchos (3rd cent. CE); a family of embalmers at Hawara (3rd-2nd cent. BC; fig. 7); a door-keeper attached to a Theban temple (2nd cent. BC); and a mercenary from Pathyris (2nd-1st cent. BC; fig. 8). The texts themselves include accounts, letters, official complaints, orders for arrest, and a range of legal documents concerning sales, loans, leases, and wills.

Fig. 8. Papyrus Carlsberg 861. One of the very few archives from ancient Egypt preserved intact until modern times is that of a mercenary named Horos who lived at a military camp at Pathyris (modern Gebelein), south of Thebes. The fifty published texts from the archive include this marriage contract, which was written in the demotic script on behalf of his eldest daughter who married one of her cousins. It documents the property she brought into the marriage and what she should receive in case of a divorce. Other documents concern his acquisition of real estate and loan business. The military camp was overrun and destroyed during a rebellion in 88 BC; the fate of Horos and his family remains unknown. The archive was acquired in 2012 through the generosity of the Augustinus and Carlsberg Foundations. Image courtesy of the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection.

Publication and conservation

The study and publication of the papyri began soon after the acquisition in the 1930s, but, as a result of an international collaborative research effort, the last thirty years have been particularly productive. More than twenty volumes of text editions have been published in addition to numerous contributions to various journals. Four of the volumes have appeared in the Papyri graecae haunienses series, and fifteen in the Carlsberg Papyri series. The latter series now represents the largest single series of Egyptian papyrus editions, and many more volumes are in active preparation by numerous scholars, including Dr. J. Cromwell (Copenhagen), Prof. F. Hoffmann (Munich), Dr. A. Kucharek (Heidelberg), Dr. C. Martin (London), Prof. emer. J. Osing (Berlin), Prof. J. F. Quack (Heidelberg), Prof. Kim Ryholt (Copenhagen), and Dr. A. Töpfer (Heidelberg). Dr. Cromwell has been based in Denmark since 2015, first as a Mobilex Fellow, and now as a Marie Curie European Fellow, with a project to study the Coptic documentary texts. The recent graduates A. Jacob and S. Schiødt are currently preparing to study the large corpus of Egyptian medical papyri for their PhD degrees.

Behind the scenes, there has also been much activity. More than 800 papyri, often consisting of many fragments, have been inventoried since the 1990s. This is a time-consuming process requiring a search through thousands of unsorted pieces. Many of the better-preserved items in both collections were conserved in the 1920s and 30s by the renowned Hugo Ibscher of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin (1874-1943), who was awarded the Order of the Dannebrog for his services. The last six years have seen a renewed conservation effort through the work of Dr. T. Christiansen, who has cleaned and mounted some two hundred manuscripts. He will leave the collection by the end of the year to take up a post in the Egyptian Museum in Turin.

Fig. 10. Papyrus Carlsberg 6 is one of just three known papyrus manuscripts inscribed with The Teaching of King Merikare. Dating to the 12th Century BC, the text is written in the hieratic script and the scribe used red ink to write the opening words of new paragraphs. The manuscript formerly belonged to the Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt, who is most famous in the public for his discovery of the bust of Nefertiti; it was originally deposited in Berlin, but was later offered to his friend H. O. Lange in Copenhagen in protest against the Berufsverbot issued by the Nazi regime. Acquired 1937 by the Carlsberg Foundation. Image courtesy of the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection.

More about the researcher

Kim Ryholt was trained under the ICPCP project (The International Committee for the Publication of the Carlsberg Papyri, 1989-1999), a ten-year project granted by the Carlsberg Foundation, where he received his first classes in demotic from Prof. Michel Chauveau, Prof. John Ray, and Prof. John Tait. Later, he went to study in Würzburg under Prof. K.-Th. Zauzich. After the completion of his studies in 1993, he received grants from the Carlsberg Foundation to study demotic literary papyri from the Tebtunis temple library for a five-year period, and in 1998, he was appointed assistant professor. The following year, he became director of the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection, and in 2001, he was appointed associate professor.

The research on ancient Egyptian literary papyri formed a key component in the successful application for the establishment of the Center for Canon and Identity Formation in the Earliest Literate Societies, a five-year University of Copenhagen Programme of Excellence (2008-2013). In 2014, he became full professor of Egyptology; the first since 1982 at the University of Copenhagen. He is currently Co-PI in the interfaculty University of Copenhagen Programme of Excellence project CoNeXT (2013-2017, dir. prof. Sine Larsen), which was initiated by the new neutron and X-ray synchrotron research infrastructures Lund and Hamburg, and in charge of the Ancient Ink as Technology project (conext.ku.dk). Manuscripts from the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection have played a central role in the experiments carried out during this project (fig. 9).

Kim Ryholt was recently awarded a Semper Ardens grant from the Carlsberg Foundation for the project Trauma, Imitatio and the Invention of History, which will commence in September 2017. The project studies the conception and use of the past in antiquity through a range of sources from different cultural and historical contexts relating to ancient Egypt. It focuses on how history is created as a literary construct, and the mechanisms at work, and explores different forms of cultural struggles (Kulturkämpfe) and their arenas. Many of the mechanisms, such as the role of trauma in identity formation, find parallels throughout history, and in this respect, the project represents a contribution to human psyche and self-understanding.


The research on manuscripts from the papyrus collection has resulted in many publications on a broad range of subjects, including the philological edition of new textual material, much of its previously unknown, to studies of various aspects of ancient Egyptian society and the world beyond, and the historiography of the discipline. Three recent contributions are:

  • Christiansen, T. / K. Ryholt. 2016. The Carlsberg Papyri 13: Catalogue of Egyptian Funerary Papyri in Danish Collections. CNI Publications 41. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. viii + 40 pages, 106 plates.
  • Hagen, F. / K. Ryholt. 2016. The Antiquities Trade in Egypt, 1880s-1930s: The H. O. Lange Papers. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica.4 vol. 8. 335 pages, 169 illustrations.
  • Ryholt, K., G. Barjamovic (eds.). Libraries before Alexandria. Oxford University Press, submitted manuscript.

[1] Self-dedications are a form of contracts where individuals paid to become temple slaves, perhaps in order to avoid compulsory labour