Sotheby’s History of Script

Sotheby’s, the auction house, sold a large collection of old examples of ancient script. The History of Script: Sixty Important Manuscript Leaves from the Schøyen Collection.

These include a 2,000 year old section from Iliad and many other ancient texts.

An interesting one is The Adler papyri, an archive of documents in Greek and Demotic, on papyrus [Egypt (Gebelein), 134-89 BC.]. It is the records of a man named Horus, son of Nechoutes. Reading the catalog description spurs the imagination. If you can’t think of story where this man is character then you are not a writer.

Excavated in Gebelein (ancient Pathyris in the Thebaid of southern Egypt, Strabo’s Aphroditopolis) and sold in 1924 by the antiquities dealer, Hadj Mansur Mahmud of Luxor, to Elkan Nathan Adler (1861-1946). Adler published an account of them in 1937 and an edition of them in 1939. He was the first European to enter the Cairo Genizah, and brought over 25,000 fragments from that storehouse back to England. His personal collection of 4,500 manuscripts was partly sold and partly bequeathed to the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. The papyri here, however, were acquired by Dr. Martin Bodmer (1899-1971), Geneva, and sold in 1970 to H.P. Kraus: his cat.126 (1971), no.96; Schøyen MSS 128-179.

This is the archive of Horus, son of Nechoutes (Demotic: Hor, son of Nekhotf) and his immediate family, who were ‘Persians of the desert’ - mercenaries in the service of the Ptolemaic pharaohs, descended from “Persians of the Achaemenidic and Hellenistic time, [intermarried with] … Egyptian soldiers, Graeco-Egyptian half-breeds, Arabs, Nubians, Libyans and Jews” (Adler Papyri, p.3). They offer a remarkably personal portrait of a man who lived a century and a half before the birth of Jesus.

Horus was most probably born c.140 BC., in Syrene, near Elephantine. He is described in the Greek documents here as of ‘middle size’ with ‘honey coloured, curly hair’, with a ‘long face’ and a ‘straight nose’, and with his ‘left ear pierced’.

He was a member of the military garrison stationed near Gebelein in the aftermath of the Theban rebellion in 186 BC., but in later life retired and committed himself to his estates and spiritual responsibilities there, describing himself as a ‘servant of the god Harsemtheus’. He also appears in P.Cornell 4 and an unpublished papyrus in the John Rylands Library. A duplicate copy of Gr.7 here can be found independently in P.Mil.1.2 of the Università Cattolica, Milan (P.Milan 1.2).

The Greek documents here detail Horus’ acquisition of property in the area of Pathyris, and are extremely early real estate records. Many of the Demotic documents follow suit; one record concerning access to an important vineyard, and another a plot of land in nearby Crocodilopolis. The Demotic part of the archive also includes evidence of how the family integrated into the region, in marriage contracts for weddings held in 92 and 97-96 BC.

Adler detected Jewish observances in the loans recorded here, which were made in “complete accordance” with Exodus 22:24 and Deutronomy 15:1-7 and 23:20 (‘The Adler Papyri’, pp.15-16, and Adler Papyri, pp.5-6), and suggested that Horus and his family may have been partly Jewish or a gentile who lived among Jews in Hellenistic Egypt and chose to follow the Jewish law “so far as it seemed good to them”. Adler’s views have met with some criticism (cf. Tscherikower, ‘Jewish Influence’), but also defence (cf. Heichelheim, ibid.), and as the latter states, it does seem “likely that Judaism and the Septuagint were not unknown to Horus and his family”.

A handful of other archives survive from Ancient Egypt, but like the Zenon papyri (from ancient Philadelphia, mid third century BC.) and the Dryton papyri (found in the Thebaid, second century BC.), almost all were widely dispersed by the antiquities market in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and are now split between museum collections in the United States, Europe and Egypt.

The present papyri have been together for twenty-one centuries. Adler himself noted of the present archive that “such a collection … is, you will perhaps agree, not to be found in any public library” (‘The Adler Papyri’, p.19). With the current export restrictions for such material out of Egypt, it is unlikely that any other could be offered on the international market.