A chapter in my book is dedicated to “find stories” of early Christian manuscripts. Along the way, I touch upon similar narratives of discoveries of other Roman era manuscripts as well, but I didn’t really have the chance to go into as much detail as I would have liked with these cases. I’ve already mentioned on this blog the story (or stories) of the Harris Homers and the crocodile pit. A second especially interesting narrative involves another “named” manuscript of the Iliad, the so-called Hawara Homer. The story of its discovery nicely illustrates the progress and problems of two disciplines related to ancient books at the turn of the twentieth century, archaeology and palaeography. In this post, I’ll talk mainly about the archaeology, or at least what we can know of how Egyptian archaeology sometimes functioned at the turn of the twentieth century.
The artifact itself, which contains book 2 of the Iliad, is primarily famous for its expertly executed script, which is now usually assigned by palaeographers to the second century C.E.
It was found in 1888 in Hawara, a site in the Fayum in Egypt
Its readings were actually first published by an Assyriologist, Archibald Sayce (1845-1933), who also provided a description of the find by way of introduction:
It is not often that an explorer is so fortunate as to discover a prize like that which fell to the lot of Mr Flinders Petrie last winter. Under the head of a mummy excavated by him at Hawara he found a large roll of papyrus, which, when unfolded, turned out to contain the greater part of the second book of the Iliad. The roll had belonged to a lady with whom it had been buried in death. The skull of the mummy showed that its possessor had been young and attractive-looking, with features at once small, intellectual, and finely chiselled, and belonging distinctively to the Greek type. Through the generosity of Mr Haworth, both skull and papyrus are now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, along with a tress of the unknown Hypatia’s black hair.
(in W.M. Flinders Petrie, Hawara, Biahmu, and Arsinoe [London: Field & Tuer, 1889], p. 24)
William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) is known as a pioneer in the field of archaeology. He worked throughout Egypt and elsewhere and was among the first excavators to appreciate the importance of stratigraphy, the accurate recording of contexts, and the use of ceramic typologies to establish relative chronologies between sites. In the case of the Hawara Homer, however, the information about the find spot is disappointingly vague. A search of Petrie’s other publications on Hawara and his unpublished journals and notes revealed almost no further details on the exact spot of the find or the context. It seems that the Homer papyrus was found with an unadorned mummy—that is to say, a mummy without any decorative mask. It was at Hawara that Petrie uncovered many of the famous “Fayum portraits,” encaustic wax images attached to mummies that often depicted the deceased in stunning detail.
The fact that no such portrait (or any burial decor) is mentioned in connection with the discovery of the Homer papyrus probably indicates that the mummy with which the roll was found was relatively undecorated.
Sayce’s slightly creepy interest in the skull under which the papyrus was found is part of a broader movement in which Petrie himself was also involved, the dubious “science” of craniology. For both men, race was a rigid conception, and the shapes of heads were thought to reveal stable racial identities (see, for example, Sayce’s The Races of the Old Testament, published in 1891 or Petrie’s Naqada and Ballas published in 1896).
The other item to note in Sayce’s description is “the generosity of Mr Haworth,” that is, Jesse Haworth (1835-1921), a Manchester textile manufacturer who financed some of Petrie’s work in Egypt. Despite Petrie’s pioneering advances in archaeological technique and record keeping, his projects were also products of their time. While modern archaeological excavations can be financed by government or private interests, artifacts found during the digs are considered government property and are stored either in regional museums or in facilities on site, where they are (or ideally should be) available to scholars who need to consult and study them. Not so in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Large scale excavations were financed by private investors who expected to be compensated by receiving a portion of the finds from an excavation. So, for example, when Petrie excavated the mummies from Hawara in 1888, the museum in Cairo selected for its own collection “a dozen of the finest portraits” and “a large portion” of the other finds, but the rest of the finds Petrie brought back to London to be put on display (Petrie, Hawara, Biahmu, and Arsinoe, 3-4). In the words of Petrie’s biographer, “Jesse Haworth came up to see the exhibition; he and Martyn Kennard [another of Petrie’s financiers] and Petrie agreed on an equitable division of the antiquities: they were henceforward to operate as a syndicate, each taking a third of what Petrie brought home” (Downer, Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology, 2nd ed., 1995, p. 142). Most of Haworth’s acquisitions ended up being donated to the Manchester Museum, but in the case of the Hawara Homer, Sayce convinced Haworth to cede the papyrus (and the accompanying skull and hair) to Oxford. Thus the items remain at the Bodleian Library at Oxford today. In a later post, I will talk a bit about the palaeographic significance of the Hawara Homer.