The Oxyrhynchus Papyri in the 1930s

From 1898 to 1927, Grenfell and/or Hunt edited the first seventeen volumes of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series (Grenfell’s periodic illnesses limited his participation in a couple volumes, and Hunt was away from Oxford during World War I). But over a decade elapsed between the publication of Volume 17 (1927) and Volume 18 (1941). What was happening with the papyri during this time? In an earlier post, I mentioned the movement of the Oxyrhynchus collection after the death of Arthur Hunt in 1934. Eric Turner has provided a bit more detail about that process by working through the minutes of committee meetings of the Egypt Exploration Society. I quote at length from Turner’s obituary for Edgar Lobel (identified as “EL” in the following excerpt):

“Between 1934 and 1939 [EL] gradually came to assume sole charge of the unpublished Oxyrhynchus papyri, and turned into the legendary dragon guarding the golden apples of the Hesperides (he insisted for long that at any one time only one scholar could fruitfully work on the collection). I give here my theory of how he came to be given these responsibilities. …The novelty I can add is derived from a quick examination of the Committee Minutes of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) for the years 1934 and 1935. …[Hugh Last, fellow of St. John’s College] reported to the Executive Committee in July 1934 (Mins. p. 170) that ‘a large quantity of unpublished papyri, the property of the Society, was still stored at Oxford. Of this the amount already unrolled was sufficient to engage one editor for many years. The remainder was in sealed boxes’. …It was hoped that Mr. C. H. Roberts might finish off the remaining Oxyrhynchus material, and he was given permission to take a small number of texts to Berlin to be worked on under Schubart’s direction in the autumn of 1934. Mr. Last was to examine the matter further. On February 19th, 1935 (Mins. p. 182) Mr. Last reported that ‘the papyri in The Queen’s College had been packed in parcels and arrangements made for storing them in Queen’s’. Each parcel consisted of a stout cardboard container (about the size of a box in which a tailor delivers a suit) containing sheets of the Oxford Gazette, between which the papyri were placed, often several papyri inside one leaf. After the packing, the papyri from Oxyrhynchus alone totalled more than a hundred such large parcels; it became clear that they were largely unexamined and uninventoried, while sampling showed that they contained material of the first importance. On 24th September 1935 (Mins. p. 203) ‘Professor Battiscombe Gunn reported that Mr. Lobell [sic] had asked permission to remove the fragments of literary papyri from The Queen’s College to the Bodleian Library for study. Permission was granted. …On 27th July 1936 (Mins. p. 222) ‘the boxes of papyri were moved from the strong room to another part of Queen’s College’.”

The boxes under discussion, then, are the cardboard boxes of selected papyri that had already been flattened (rather than the tin boxes, which do not come into view here). Although permission was granted for some of the papyri to be moved to the Bodleian, they actually ended up going instead to “another part of Queen’s College.” Turner quite plausibly explains this discrepancy by reference to Lobel’s change of position and location:

“I interpret these cryptic entries thus: — in July 1934 the Committee of the EES was unaware of the huge bulk of the unpublished papyri from Oxyrhynchus; the nature of its suggestions revealed that it did not think that they amounted to more than an inconsiderable remainder. When its ignorance was dispelled, it had no firm suggestions for handling the treasure. …Informally in The Queen’s College senior common room Battiscombe Gunn and Sir Alan Gardiner consulted EL, and he was given access to the parcels. His interest was aroused and he was won over (very likely Gilbert Murray swayed his decision) to contemplate the idea of taking responsibility for the entire collection and for its publication. In December 1935 he was appointed Reader in Papyrology in the University at a nominal salary, the office to run from July 1st 1936; and in October 1938 he resigned his position as Keeper of Western Manuscripts in Bodley and accepted a Senior Research Fellowship at The Queen’s College: at which time he wrote to Bodley’s Librarian that the Research Fellowship would ‘enable me to devote all my time to work on Greek literary papyri’. By July 1936 the papyri were being installed in his room in Drawda Hall (one of the most combustible parts of The Queen’s College, an observation which gave me nightmares in after years when I was Graeco-Roman Editor of the EES) and EL had begun that work which in his lifetime was to carry the Oxyrhynchus series from part XVIII (published in 1941) to part XLVIII (published in 1982).”


Turner, Eric G. “Edgar Lobel †” Gnomon 55 (1983), 275-280

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3 Responses to The Oxyrhynchus Papyri in the 1930s

  1. Pingback: Some Observations on the Updated EES Statement on P.Oxy. 83.5345 | Variant Readings

  2. Pingback: The Retraction of Dirk Obbink’s Sappho Chapter and the Question of Authenticity | Variant Readings

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