The Robinson Papyri


William H. Willis

“The Robinson Papyri” are a group of manuscripts bought by David Moore Robinson (1880-1958), professor of classics and archaeology at the University of Mississippi. I first became interested in these papyri while trying to sort out the origins of the Bodmer Papyri, another somewhat confusing group of manuscripts that I will discuss in a later post. Most scholars know the Robinson Papyri mainly through a paper presented by William H. Willis (1916-2000) in 1958, which was published in the Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Papyrology, “The New Collections of Papyri at the University of Mississippi.” In that publication, Willis gave the following information about the Robinson Papyri, which were then housed at the University of Mississippi, where Willis was the chair of the Department of Classics:  

The Robinson collection falls into three groups. In the first group are 17 Greek papyri which Professor Robinson acquired in the Fayum between 1903 and 1910. …The second group contains 9 literary fragments purchased between1950 and 1952 from the late Erik von Scherling. The third group comprises a collection purchased in 1954 from an Egyptian dealer, and contains 95 Greek texts, virtually all fragmentary and of Roman or later date—64 documentary, 1 magical, and 4 literary—and 38 Coptic texts, of which 35 are documents and 3 are fragments of Christian codices. (pp. 381-382)

It is the third group that was of particular interest to me because it seems to be this group (rather than the second) that contained a small part of a manuscript included in the Bodmer collection.


P.Rob.inv. 38, joined to P.Köln.inv. 904

The Robinson papyrus designated as P.Rob.inv. 38 is part of the famous Bodmer codex containing three works of Menander. So, two big questions arise: Who was the “Egyptian dealer”? And, what else, exactly, was in that purchase? Well, the first question has been answered. While working on the problem of the provenance of the Nag Hammadi Coptic codices in the 1970s, a different Robinson, James M. Robinson of Claremont, made a number of discoveries relating to the Bodmer papyri. His eventually asked Willis about the (David M.) Robinson papyri and received this response in a letter of 25 February 1980:


The additional information I can give you about the provenience of the Mississippi papyri is not very much. They all came to us from Maguid Sameda, Sultan’s father. He had sold the “third group” of Robinson Papyri to David M. Robinson in 1954, a miscellany of Greek and Coptic texts. (James M. Robinson, The Story of the Bodmer Papyri, p. 41, note 99)

The precise contents of that “third purchase” are harder to discern. Willis’s description from 1958 is a bit unclear: “95 Greek texts, virtually all fragmentary and of Roman or later date—64 documentary, 1 magical, and 4 literary—and 38 Coptic texts.” The numbers literally don’t add up: If the Greek texts number 95 and consist of 64 documents, 1 magical text, and 4 literary texts, what about the other 26 Greek pieces? Things only get murkier as we move closer to the present. In 1963, Willis moved from Mississippi to Duke University, and the Robinson papyri as a group also came to be a part of the Duke papyrus collection. Or so I had thought.

In 2014, Oxford professor Dirk Obbink announced the existence of a papyrus containing some new lines of poems of Sappho from “a private collection [in] London.” Thanks to public pressure from Roberta Mazza and others, the final publication of the papyrus included more detailed information about provenance: The Sappho manuscript was allegedly removed from cartonnage that was part of “the third group of Robinson Papyri.” At about the same time, the Green Collection in the US purchased a papyrus fragment of the book of Galatians in Coptic (which, as Brice Jones pointed out, had been for sale on eBay in 2012) and claimed that it too came from the Robinson Papyri. Was this possible? Did Duke really not get all of the Robinson Papyri? In fact, a lot sold through Christie’s auction house on 28 November 2011 did claim to include material from the Robinson Papyri. Here is what they say they had on offer:

59 packets of papyri fragments, approximately 20 x 45mm to 300 x 100mm, the majority in Greek, from various manuscripts containing texts in a variety of hands and including documentary, petitionary and literary excerpts, receipts, contracts and accounts. A number of fragments belonged to the collection of David M. Robinson, a large part of which was subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi. 

It seems I had misunderstood the history of the Robinson Papyri. After a bit of digging, I found a report from the Duke University Library from the 1980s that contained some interesting and surprising information. Again, the author is William H. Willis: “Duke Papyri: A History of the Collection,” Library Notes (May 1985). I haven’t seen this article cited in the scholarly literature. I’ll just give a few excerpts from this later essay by Willis:

The Duke University Library acquired its first papyrus in 1942, a fragment of an account in Greek. Its second, a second-century customs receipt, was given in 1967 by the late Professor Kenneth W. Clark. Its third and fourth were the beginning of a number being donated by this writer from the private collection of the late David M. Robinson. One of these, given in 1967, is a small fragment of a third-century papyrus codex in Latin which is the oldest known manuscript of Cicero’s First Oration against Catiline (P.Duk. inv. L 1), the rest of which has since been recognized in a Barcelona collection. The other, given in 1968, is a fragment of a third-century papyrus roll of Aeschines’ oration Against Ctesiphon (P.Duk. inv. G 3). (p. 36)

Later in the essay, Willis gave more details:

As mentioned above, the source of the first literary papyri acquired by Duke was the small private collection formed by the renowned archaeologist David M. Robinson, who bequeathed it to the writer in 1958. Starting in 1908 Robinson collected sporadically over the years well into the 1950s, a time at which agents were beginning to buy for Cologne and Geneva. It is therefore not surprising that these three collections should occasionally share dispersed fragments deriving from the same papyri. Robinson’s 75 papyri, however, had been left in their raw state unrestored in boxes and folders containing a miscellany of hundreds of small bits. As these are sorted by style of writing, cleaned, assembled, restored and identified, a process requiring many years of patient effort, they are being given to the Duke collection. By today 24 have been accessioned…  (p. 44)

The implication of this statement seems to be that seems to be that 1) Willis himself became the owner of the Robinson papyri in 1958, and 2) at the time of the writing of the article (1985), only 24 of the 75 papyri had been donated to Duke. That Willis himself owned the papyri was news to me, but when I revisited his 1958 presentation, I noticed that he never in fact said that the papyri were donated to the University of Mississippi. What was written was this:

In the Library of the University of Mississippi there are now two recently acquired collections of papyri: one, that bequeathed by the late Professor David M. Robinson, the other a collection purchased and presented to the Library by a group known as the Friends of the Library. (p. 381)

Willis does not say here that the Robinson Papyri were bequeathed to the University. In fact, it seems they were given to him personally. (If anyone can demonstrate that the University of Mississippi ever did own the Robinson Papyri, I would be grateful if you could let me know the evidence.) Willis died in 2000. Did the rest of the Robinson papyri make it to Duke? Recall that in the 1958 article, Willis described the third group of Robinson papyri alone as consisting of 95 Greek pieces and 38 Coptic pieces. In the 1985 article, the collection is now described as 75 pieces (perhaps due to some fragments formerly counted separately being joined?), only 24 of which were then owned by Duke. At the webpage for the Duke collection, we see the following information about their acquisition of the Robinson Papyri:

1968 and later: Gifts from William H. Willis (formerly owned by David M. Robinson): P.Duk.inv. 3, 97-99, 232, 244, 747-781 and 783-798

So, that’s 57 items, which, under any calculation of the numbers, leaves a lot unaccounted for. Did Willis still own papyri at the time of his death? If so, why were they not donated to Duke as the other pieces had been? Were they instead sold? When? And to whom? These are all questions to which I don’t yet know the answers. The stories related by Obbink about the Sappho papyri and by the Green Collection about the Galatians fragments are thus possible, but they still come across to me as a little strange, as they did to others as well from the moment they appeared. The idea that cartonnage with inscribed papyri and a highly legible copy of Galatians passed by Willis without comment for the 30 years he was associated with the collection is tough to accept (and how did the Galatians piece end up on eBay?). But at the same time, there a lot of pieces from Willis’s initial 1958 report that need to be accounted for. It seems there are still some mysteries to be solved with the Robinson Papyri.

About Brent Nongbri

Visiting Professor at Aarhus University
This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Bodmer Papyri, Green Collection, Mummy cartonnage, Robinson Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Robinson Papyri

  1. Pingback: Further Details on the Robinson Papyri | Variant Readings

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