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This is an archived exhibit of The Bancroft Library, University California, Berkeley.

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A virtual display based on CTP exhibition curated by Elisabeth R. O'Connell (2005)


Although the percentage of functional literates always remained low, Roman Egypt was a literate society. All manner of economic and social transactions over the course of one's life required written documentation: births and deaths necessitated registration and receipts for payment of taxes marked the intervening years of most people's lives. Semi-literates and illiterates participated in a literate system through networks of self-interest consisting of family, friends, colleagues and scribes. Who were the literates that perpetuated this system and how might we identify them from their archaeological remains?

The dry climate of Egypt has preserved an unparalleled body of evidence illuminating the daily lives of the land's inhabitants. The number and variety of sources provided by archaeological excavation has yielded a data set unique in the Roman empire. Documentary papyri–letters, petitions, receipts, census records, tax rolls, contracts–demonstrate a whole spectrum of writers between those who can only sign their names with awkwardly formed letters ("signature-literates"), and those who can write rapidly and gracefully on their own behalves. By contrast, the identity of readers is more difficult to recognize in the material remains. Readers and writers may not have always been the same people. In several historical societies, inability to write does not preclude reading and the ability to form shapes to write does not necessitate comprehension. Readers and copiers of literary papyri are of special interest and generate modern questions about audience for and reception of narrative and poetic forms. Ancient Tebtunis has yielded a great number of literary texts from the Graeco-Roman period, but attempts to link them to named people who copied, owned or read them has proven difficult. The Tebtunis papyri offer an opportunity to explore functional literacy and literary culture in one provincial Roman town; the remarkable breadth of objects retrieved from the same site provides a vivid context.