A Bit More on the Storage and Inventory of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

As Grenfell and Hunt’s team extracted papyri from the garbage heaps in Oxyrhynchus, they placed them in baskets, which Grenfell and Hunt eventually packed away in tin boxes. As Grenfell famously wrote in his report of the first season’s excavation at Oxyrhynchus:

“…The flow of papyri soon became a torrent which it was difficult to cope with. Each lot found by a pair, man and boy, had to be kept separate; for the knowledge that papyri are found together is frequently of the greatest importance for determining their date, and since it is inevitable that so fragile a material should sometimes be broken in the process of extricating it from the closely- packed soil, it is imperative to keep together, as far as possible, fragments of the same document. We engaged two men to make tin boxes for storing the papyri, but for the next ten weeks they could hardly keep pace with us.”

Oxyrhynchus Papyri Excavation

Workers extracting papyri, photo by Arthur Hunt, probably in 1903; image source: POxy Oxyrhynchus Online

Revel Coles picks up the story from that point:

“At the end of each season, big wooden crates were prepared, to contain the metal boxes (made on site) in which the papyri had been packed, which were then first transported by camel (Fig. 1.7), then by ship from Alexandria to England. After a brief interval, Grenfell and Hunt returned five times to Oxyrhynchus, and overall they brought back—with full government agreement, possible in those days—hundreds of boxes of papyri, to constitute what is the largest collection in the world.”

Oxyrhynchus crates

Image source: A. K. Bowman, et al. (eds.), Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts (Egypt Exploration Society, 2007), p. 9, fig. 1.7

Once the papyri were shipped to Oxford (to The Queen’s College, I believe, where both Grenfell and Hunt were alumni), Grenfell and Hunt began the work of publishing them. The papyri were flattened, conserved, deciphered, and mounted between glass plates as they were published. In the early days, the published pieces were then distributed to the financial supporters of the Egypt Exploration Fund. After the early 1920s, the distribution of the Oxyrhynchus papyri ceased, and the published pieces framed in glass remained at Oxford. Today, they are to be found in the Papyrology Rooms in the Sackler Library.

The situation with the unpublished papyri is less clear. Some of the unpublished papyri (I’m not sure what the proportions are) remain in the metal boxes in which they were first stored. These can be seen in an AHRC video about The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project:

Oxyrhynchus Tin Boxes

A tin box of Oxyrhynchus papyri, before and after opening; image source: Oxyrhynchus Papyri: An AHRC Film

What look like the best preserved pieces were removed from these tin boxes, flattened, placed between leaves of the Oxford University Gazette, and stored in a new series of boxes. These can also be seen in screen grabs from another video:

Oxyrhynchus Cardboard Boxes

A cardboard box of flattened Oxyrhynchus papyri stored between leaves of the Oxford University Gazette; image source: Citizen Science Translating Ancient Lives

The Oxyrhynchus collection, then, seems to be stored in three distinct ways: the published pieces flattened and framed in glass, the substantial unpublished pieces flattened and stored between the leaves of the Oxford University Gazette, and the more fragmentary pieces still in the tin boxes. The details of this first sorting process and separation of the materials into a new set of boxes are obscure to me. There is some further published information about the movements of the papyri in the 1930s, but I will discuss these in a separate post.


Coles, Revel A. “Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts.” Pages 3-16 in A. K. Bowman et al. (eds.), Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts. Egypt Exploration Society, 2007.

Grenfell, Bernard P. “Oxyrhynchus and its Papyri.” Archaeological Report (Egypt Exploration Fund), (1896-1897), 1-12.


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5 Responses to A Bit More on the Storage and Inventory of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

  1. David Bradnick says:

    Based upon the pictures you provided, could the inventory numbers relate to the numbers on the wooden crates and the tin boxes. For example, P.Oxy 5345 has an inventory number of 104/14(b). The 104 may relate to a corresponding wooden crate and 14(b) might represent the numbered tin within the wooden crate? Perhaps 14 represents a row and b concerns the layer within the crate? When discerning the year a fragment was found, EES and Oxford would likely know the year of the expedition based upon the number on the wooden crates.

  2. David Bradnick says:

    Around min. 16:15 Peter Parsons tells us that the finds at Oxyrhynchus are stored in “120 really large cardboard boxes.” He probably is referring to these wooden crates, which would align with my previous post. This may explain why some fragments have the same catalog number – coming from the same crate and stored in the same tin box. He also says that the papyri were housed in The Oxford Gazette due to economic reasons but have been replaced “bit by bit.” Adds that the tin boxes were made out of cans of kerosene, also for economic purposes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nS_FSkFwpIM

  3. Pingback: The Oxyrhynchus Papyri in the 1930s | Variant Readings

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  5. Pingback: The EES and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri “Card” System | Variant Readings

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