George W. Houston: From a Trash Heap: The Mind of an Ancient Book Collector

houston_insideWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by George W. Houston, author of Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity. Libraries of the ancient world have long held a place in the public imagination. Even in antiquity, the library at Alexandria was nearly legendary. Until now there has been relatively little research to discover what was inside these libraries, how the collections came into being and evolved, and who selected and maintained the holdings. In this engaging and meticulously researched study, Houston examines a dozen specific book collections of Roman date in the first comprehensive attempt to answer these questions.

In today’s post, Houston relates the literary discoveries made by a twentieth-century archaeological team excavating a third-century dump in Egypt.


Amid lengthening shadows late in the afternoon of January 13, 1906, two young British scholars, who with their teams of workers were excavating ancient dusty mounds in Egypt, made a startling discovery. The scholars were Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, both of Queen’s College, Oxford. The site was the ancient town of Oxyrhynchus (the modern Bahnasa), about a hundred miles south of Cairo and west of the Nile. The mounds were the remains of the ancient town dump, vast piles of trash thrown out by the inhabitants of the town over a period of six hundred years or more. Grenfell directed the Egyptian workers, who were divided into teams of four to seven men. The workers searched carefully through the ancient dump, looking for pieces of papyrus, the ancient equivalent of paper; when they found bits of papyrus, they put them in baskets, and Hunt then sorted through the fragments and organized them for future study.

This was not the first time Grenfell and Hunt had searched for papyrus in Egypt—they had begun exploring various sites in 1897—but the discoveries they made at Oxyrhynchus in the winter of 1905–1906 produced astonishingly rich assortments of materials. The bits of papyrus had been preserved by the ultra-dry sands of Egypt, but they were not in good shape. They were trash, after all, and some of them may have been thrown out because they were damaged or torn. Many were bent or crushed or faded. Most survived as small fragments, containing just a few letters or lines of text; some preserved several columns of writing; and a few still contained the equivalent of several pages of continuous text. Most of the papyri that have been found in Egypt have turned out to be documents that, when studied, provide invaluable and fascinating details on ancient daily life; but what Grenfell and Hunt were seeking was potentially more precious still: remains of ancient works of literature. And that is what they found in the afternoon of January 13.

Even a quick look at the fragments revealed the potential value of the papyri in this find, and Grenfell excitedly wrote a friend a few days later: “On Jan. 13 . . . we were fortunate enough to make incomparably the biggest and most important find of classical pieces that we have ever made.” Some of the texts in this find are well known from medieval copies. There are, for example, two copies of Plato’s Phaedrus, one of his Symposium, and part of Thucydides, Book 7. But others were completely or largely unknown before Grenfell and Hunt’s discovery. Several hundred lines of a lost play of Euripides, the Hypsipyle, emerged, as did a remarkably detailed and sophisticated history of Greece in the early years of the fourth century BC (the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia), and a copy of Pindar’s Paeans (Hymns to Apollo) that included wide margins in which the scribe had written extensive comments to help the reader understand the poetry. These, plus others, fully justified Grenfell’s early excitement.

The collection is valuable in another way as well, a way that scholars have not exploited until recently, more than a century after it was discovered. As Grenfell and Hunt noticed, the manuscripts were found close together and almost certainly represent part of a particular collection of book rolls, probably one that belonged to a scholar. If we analyze the collection, we can learn something about the interests and concerns of that long-ago owner.

Many of the works in the collection—the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, Thucydides (of which there is both a text and a commentary), speeches of Lysias, a life of Alicibiades, and several others—have to do with, or were written in, the period from roughly 430 to 340 BC. Our collector, living in the second century AD, was looking back to, and deeply interested in, a time in Greek history some six hundred years earlier. He was, if not cheap, at least economy-minded: six of the sixteen manuscripts were copied on re-used documents, a far higher percentage than would be expected in a random sample of literary papyri. Such re-use is generally taken as a money-saving strategy, since used papyrus would be less expensive than new. On the other hand, the collector seems to have been a serious reader, for he was much interested in obtaining highly accurate copies: most of the rolls had been corrected by a second hand, and at least two of the sixteen had been checked against two earlier copies. The rolls in this collection, although they were unusually accurate, were not particularly beautiful or elegantly produced: this was a collector who wanted sound texts above all.

Thrown out in the third century, rediscovered in 1906, these book rolls are finally now, in the twenty-first century, revealing to us the interests and priorities of a book collector who lived, read, and strove to understand his texts some eighteen hundred years ago.

Images linked in this post are by permission from the Oxyrhynchus Online site at

George W. Houston is professor emeritus of classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity