Scholars from Sydney to Cairo converged on Manchester this week-end for heady talk about papyrus fragments. Following on the announcement earlier in the week of the newly discovered ‘last supper amulet‘, the atmosphere of the John Rylands Research Institute’s symposium, From Egypt to Manchester, Unravelling the John Rylands Papyrus Collection, was always going to be exciting.
The scholarly contributions of the conference itself were themselves spectacular, ranging from early Greece to the rise of Islam. Particularly interesting to me, of course, were the papers on early Christianity and later paganism. Roberta Mazza’s breaking-news talk about the new Christian amulet (P.Ryl. Greek Add. 1166 verso) offered a marvellous mix of technical know-how (how do changing laboratory dating techniques change what we can know?) to reflections on the sociology of ‘magical thinking’ in the world of the early Christians.
But what was most amazing was the chance to inspect the papyri themselves in the company of these luminaries. We had had papers from Thomas J. Kraus and Caroline Checkley-Scott on the imaginative world of miniature books in late antiquity were equally exciting, with Thomas offering broad observations about how precious these mini-volumes could be in the lives of the individuals who owned or used them, while Caroline gave a mesmerising account of her attempts to reconstruct how Rylands Greek 28, a fourth-century divination manual, would have functioned as a physical object. There is something quite surreal about Greek 28 – its subject is ‘the prognostications to be derived from the involuntary movement – allesthai or pallein, i.e. quivering or twitching – of various parts of the body.'<1> By creating a modern mock-up of the book, Caroline was able to shed light on the ’embodied’ use of this kind of knowledge by the fourth-century practitioner who counted it as one of the tools of his (or her) trade, and it was marvellous to see her in action in the conservation lab.
Back in the Historic Reading Room, Elizabeth Gow and Todd hickey shed light on the politics behind the original collection of the papyri, with Elizabeth updating the research that went into her excellent 2008 exhibition on the Cuban-born collector Enriqueta Rylands, founder of the John Rylands Library. Todd gave a marvellous account of his archival research tracing the joint ‘buying trip’ to Egpyt of Bernard Grenfell and Francis Kelsey in 1920, which had transformative results for many British and US papyrus collections. And Brent Nongbri gave a lively update to his 2005 article on the dating of Rylands Greek 457, widely believed to be the oldest surviving fragment of a New Testament codex. (And the article itself has become a classic of considering the ‘known unknown’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’ in the field of papyrology.)
There were other marvels too numerous to recount here – Roberta Mazza will be publishing a volume of the conference papers and I warmly recommend it! But I can’t close without mentioning that I was particularly thrilled to see two of our Manchester postgraduates, Will Mundy and James Corke-Webster (a recent PhD) giving brilliant papers in a section on provincial administration, with each offering a compelling new hypothesis about an important group of documents held in the Rylands collections.
The only thing more inspiring than an incredible collection of ancient manuscripts is one that is cared for by generous scholar-curators and buzzing with lively discussion between dedicated scholar-teachers, their energetic students, and brilliant colleagues visiting from all over the world. This week, the Rylands Library gave evidence once again that it is such a place, and one hopes that the shade of Enriqueta Rylands is smiling as a result.
<1> Arthur S. Hunt, Catalogue of the Greek Papyri in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, vol I (Manchester, 1911), p. 56.