Palaeography and the Hawara Homer: Part 1

In an earlier post, I talked about the archaeology of the Hawara Homer (LDAB 1695), a papyrus roll containing the second book of the Iliad found with an unadorned mummy during Flinders Petrie’s excavations in Hawara in 1888. In this post, I want to talk a bit about the dating of the manuscript, which provides a nice illustration of how things functioned in the early days of palaeographic dating of ancient Greek handwriting. The handwriting of the papyrus is striking in the regularity of the letters, which were clearly executed by a skilled copyist.

Hawara Homer Sample

Sample of writing from the Hawara Homer (Bodleian MS Gr. Class A.1 (P); Image from the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents

This type of Greek writing is what specialists now call the “Rounded Majuscule”  (or, in older scholarship, the “Roman Uncial”). The Hawara Homer is now pretty much universally believed to have been produced in the second century. But I want to look a bit at the history of the manuscript and its dating, which I think is quite instructive. A few months after the discovery of the manuscript, it was Petrie himself who flattened it out and mounted it between glass panes (as a handwritten note on the papyrus informs us):

Hawara Homer Petrie Note

Note from Flinders Petrie on the Hawara Homer (Bodleian MS Gr. Class A.1 (P); Image from the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents

From the beginning, there were mixed messages about the dating of this manuscript. The find was so impressive that it made international headlines, and contemporary newspaper reports described the manuscript as dating from “about the second or third century” (The New York Times, 19 June 1888). One presumes that Petrie was the source of this information.

NYT Petrie Article

Article on Petrie’s excavations in The New York Times (19 June 1888)

Thus it was somewhat surprising that when the readings of the papyrus were formally published in 1889, the editor, Archibald Sayce, simply remarked, “The papyrus is assigned to the fifth century by Mr Maunde Thompson.” That would be the esteemed palaeographer Edward Maunde Thompson (1840-1929), at that time the principal librarian of the British Museum. A few years later in 1893, Maunde Thompson repeated this dating in his own Handbook of Greek and Latin Palaeography, describing the Hawara Homer as dating “perhaps as late as the fifth or sixth century” (p. 110). The reason for this dating seems to be the similarity between the writing of the Hawara Homer and that of parchment manuscripts like the so-called Ambrosian Iliad (LDAB 2215), which, at the end of the 19th century, was typically assigned to the fifth century (although when it was first published in 1819, it had been thought to be a fourth-century production).

Hawara Homer and Ambrosian Iliad

The writing of the Hawara Homer (top) compared with that of  the Ambrosian Iliad (bottom)

But just six years later, Frederic Kenyon (1863-1952), who was at that time an assistant in the British Museum, published his prize-winning essay, The Palaeography of Greek Papyri. In this work, Kenyon assigned the Hawara Homer to the second century CE on the basis of its similarity to recently discovered papyri, such as P.Lond. 2.141 and P.Oxy. 1.20 (both published in 1898). P.Lond. 2.141 was a document with a known date 88 CE, and P.Oxy. 1.20 (LDAB 1630) was another copy of the Iliad on a roll, the back side of which had been reused for a document in cursive handwriting that was assigned to the late second or early third century. Thus, both of the pieces that Kenyon cited had dates, one fixed (P.Lond. 2.141, 88 CE) and one relative (P.Oxy. 1.20, some time before the late second century CE).

Hawara Homer and POxy 1 20

The writing of the Hawara Homer (top) compared with that of P.Oxy 1.20 (bottom)

Yet, Kenyon did not deny the similarity between the hands of the Hawara Homer and the Ambrosian Iliad, with the result that he became willing to entertain an earlier date for the latter: “Though it would be rash to express a definite judgement merely on the strength of a few facsimiles, it is worthwhile suggesting a doubt whether [the Ambrosian Iliad] may not be considerably older than the fifth century, the date to which it is now assigned” (p. 121).

Maunde Thompson went even further. In the revised and expanded version of his handbook published in 1912, Maunde Thompson fully accepted Kenyon’s redating of the Hawara Homer and now endorsed a third century date for the Ambrosian Iliad (pages 198-199). Thus, in a period of about a decade, these two manuscripts swung wildly in their dating by two centuries in the case of the Ambrosian Iliad and three centuries in the case of the Hawara Homer. Kenyon’s second-century date for the Hawara Homer has endured, but the third-century dating of the Ambrosian Iliad has not (it is nowadays generally assigned to the fifth or sixth century). But that is not really the end of the story. I’ll take up the subsequent history of the palaeography of these manuscripts in a later post.


Kenyon, Frederic. The Palaeography of Greek Papyri. Oxford: Clarendon, 1899.

Maunde Thompson, Edward. Handbook of Greek and Latin Palaeography. New York: D. Appleton, 1893.

Maunde Thompson, Edward. An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912.

Sayce, Archibald. “The Greek Papyri,” in W.M. Flinders Petrie, Hawara, Biahmu, and Arsinoe. London: Field & Tuer, 1889.

This entry was posted in Ambrosian Iliad, British Museum, Edward Maunde Thompson, Frederic Kenyon, Hawara Homer, Palaeography, William Matthew Flinders Petrie. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Palaeography and the Hawara Homer: Part 1

  1. Peter Malik says:

    It is a bit of a mess, isn’t it. But from the standpoint of letter formation and graphic typology, I wouldn’t see say the two MSS show are genuinely similar. Not only is the Ambrosian Iliad more compressed and bimodular, but it betrays the ‘affectedness’ typical of more developed, later hands. The third-century date is absolutely unnecessary. It is late and Thompson was right. But that doesn’t mean the Hawara Homer is not of the second-/early third-century date. Two distinct graphic typologies in two distinct MSS.

  2. I don’t necessarily disagree about the datings you propose, but are they really “distinct graphic typologies”? According to whom? Here’s what Cavallo says about the “maioscula rotonda” (my rough translation): “Among the most significant examples to recall [of the Rounded Majuscule] is, above all, the celebrated Hawara Homer…[which is] to be referred to the second century, during which this wonderful calligraphy flourished. …It should be noted, however, that an imitation of this type of writing came about around the late fifth century, perhaps in the pagan environs of Alexandria…It is found in fact in the celebrated manuscript of the Ambrosian Iliad” (G. Cavallo, La scrittura greca e latina dei papiri [Pisa, 2008], pp. 95-98). Palaeographers of the Italian school seem not to deny the similarity. I’ll say more about this is a later post.

    • Peter Malik says:

      Perhaps ‘distinct graph. typol.’ is a bit too strong, but imitation or archaisation doesn’t necessarily mean the same type of script. This comes through in the overall character of writing (modularity, affectedness, influence of other [early or late] contemporary scripts. This is what Cavallo observed in bib majuscule, for instance. The main difference of course is that the latter script had s real longevity, with observable ‘decline’. With round majuscule we’re left with much fewer exx.

  3. Pingback: The Palaeography of the Hawara Homer: Part 2 | Variant Readings

  4. Pingback: The Yale Genesis | Variant Readings

  5. Pingback: Color Images of the Hawara Homer Online | Variant Readings

  6. Pingback: The Inscriptions of the Jewish Catacomb at Vigna Randanini | Variant Readings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s