The Oxyrhynchus “Distributions”

In the recent discussions about the newly published fragment of the Gospel According to Mark (P.Oxy. 83.5345), there has been a little confusion about the so-called “distribution papyri.” These are pieces of papyrus excavated from Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere that the Egypt Exploration Fund sent to various institutions (and occasionally individuals), mostly in the UK and USA, that made financial donations to support the work of the EEF.As far as the Oxyrhynchus papryi are concerned, this practice only involved pieces that had already been published (that is to say, this practice can have nothing to do with a papyrus that has just been published for the first time in 2018) and only lasted from about 1900-1924. In the Appendix to Volume 4 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (published in 1904), the editors gave a list of the papyri that had been donated up to that time and prefaced it with the following note:

Distributions 2


Similar lists appear as appendices to Volume 5 (1908), Volume 11 (1915), and Volume 16 (1924). I’m not aware of further distributions of papyri after 1924. A list of all the locations of the pieces was published in 1974 (R.A. Coles, Location List of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri), and there has long been an online version of this text at the POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online site. More up-to-date information about various pieces can often be found in the Leuven Database of Ancient Books.

The dispersal of a collection like this can seem shocking in the current cultural climate, but it’s important to recognize that this was not an uncommon practice at the time. In the late 19th and early 20th century, excavators in Egypt often had arrangements with the Egyptian government whereby the authorities in Cairo would select their choice of excavated materials to retain in Egypt and allow excavators to keep the rest to dispense as they saw fit (For an example of one of these arrangements involving the “Fayum portraits” and papyri excavated by Flinders Petrie, see this post).

That’s not to say there are no ethical concerns surrounding these papyri. Over the years, some institutions who received distribution papyri have elected to sell them on the open market. This is how the Museum of the Bible (via the Green Collection) obtained a number of (published) Oxyrhynchus papyri. Such sales open up the risk that the pieces go into the hands of private collectors and cease to be accessible to the public. So it’s not surprising that these sales have brought widespread condemnations from scholars (see, for example, posts from Brice Jones and Roberta Mazza, who have been resolutely bringing attention to sales of papyri for years now). And there is now a systematic effort to track and record the whereabouts of all such “distributed” artifacts from British excavations in the form of “Artefacts of Excavation: British Excavations in Egypt, 1880-1980,” a 3-year, AHRC-funded collaborative project led by Alice Stevenson John Baines.

For a good overview of the “distributions” of papyri, see:
William A. Johnson, “The Oxyrhynchus Distributions in America: Papyri and Ethics,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 49 (2012), 209-222.





This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Green Collection, Oxyrhynchus Papyri, William Matthew Flinders Petrie. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Oxyrhynchus “Distributions”

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