Piecing together Egyptian knowledge

Cover image of Piecing together Egyptian knowledge

Classicist Julie Baleriaux, part of the ERC’s team of Scientific Officers, describes her career path and shares with us some fascinating ERC funded research. Egyptologist Verena Lepper is deciphering 4000 years’ worth of text to uncover the secrets of an Island.

As a Scientific Officer at the ERC, which I have now been for over 3 years, my main focus is the evaluation panel for project proposals relating to the human past. We examine funding applications for research into all periods of history and in archaeology. It is extremely varied: the proposals we receive range from trying to find out whether Neanderthals and other cousins of Homo Sapiens could have a family together, to the rise and transformations of anti-slavery movements within contemporary Africa - and everything in between.

By training, I am myself a historian and a classicist, lured to the field by stories of Greek mythology that I read when I was a pre-teen. Who doesn’t love the drama of Greek gods?

My primary career idea was actually to work in museums: in fact, before joining the ERC, I was a museum curator. However, having done an internship at the European Commission just after my PhD, I had a European career at the back of my mind. Thus, when the opportunity arose to use my academic background to serve European research, I jumped right in!


The project: 4000 years of text


I would like to share with you some ERC funded research that I found particularly interesting: Verena Lepper’s ELEPHANTINE project. Its aim is to write a cultural history of Egypt’s Elephantine Island, in particular how it acted as an example of globalisation over 4000 years. It is one of my favourite projects, for several reasons. 


They have textual data that covers 4000 uninterrupted years of history on this tiny island – to my knowledge, this is unique

The first one of course is that I find Egyptology absolutely fascinating. The second one is that the project team are doing something truly remarkable. As a historian of Antiquity, I got used to working with very fragmentary material, and on relying a lot on archaeological data to try and discern the history of a place. With the Elephantine project, the team is working with a huge amount of data (by ancient history standards…) that goes from fragments of papyrus on 1cm² to full texts painstakingly pieced together.  But what is even more remarkable is that they have textual data that covers 4000 uninterrupted years of history on this tiny island – to my knowledge, this is unique.

Papyri - Elefantine-Kisten.jpg

Unopened boxes filled with Elephantine Papyri, dating to 1907. © Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, StaatlicheMuseen zu Berlin, SPK


One does not simply read papyri

Another significant feature of the project is that Dr Lepper gathered a widely interdisciplinary team to work on the papyri. Philologists and archaeologists work hand-in-hand with computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists.

Philologists and archaeologists work hand-in-hand with computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists 

Why? Because you don’t simply access 4000 years’ worth of text that easily. Most papyri are tiny, heavily damaged, extremely fragile, and worst of all, some completely rolled up and so old that one cannot even touch them without risking to destroy them. Thus, the team has been working on ways to read what is inside these mini scrolls without opening them. The good news is that they are succeeding! When I visited the project back in early 2019, they had just managed to read the first word without opening a tiny, blackened and fragile papyrus that was extracted from an amulet. It read “Lord” in Coptic, indicating a Christian presence on the island.


A scattered treasure

The collection is scattered between more than sixty institutions worldwide, and this project is the first time that all these sources have been brought together into a single database. There are even images and 3D models of ostraka (pottery shards which were used to take notes, a bit like post-its). This led to important discoveries, including unique gynaecological texts, the localisation of the supposedly lost archives of the Istituto Biblico Pontificio excavations at Elephantine Island in 1918, and the discovery of 400 unknown Aramaic papyrus fragments. The 3D modelling also allowed the research team to piece together broken texts to uncover new material. 


In the Egyptian Museum in Berlin Dr Lepper is responsible for a collection of more than 30,000 papyri and manuscripts in ten different languages and scripts. In the Neues Museum on the Berlin Museum Island she was also in charge of curating the new papyrus display, one of today’s largest papyrus exhibitions in the world, for a public of about one million visitors per year.


Everyone on board!

Another feature that makes this project particularly interesting is that its team collaborates and engages widely with other researchers. For instance, one team member is based at the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt. There, a group of early-career Egyptian specialists in Egyptian papyri was trained in the databases and technologies developed within the ERC project. In addition, the project has welcomed guest researchers from Egypt, the US, Europe and Japan. Dr Lepper also partnered with Khartoum University in Sudan to explore whether typical chemical characteristics can help identify the provenance of archaeological works, which would help answer some of the project's questions related to multi-culturalism in Elephantine. The fact that the island was essentially a densely multicultural microcosm caught the eye of UNESCO as well as the national and international press.


Breaking new ground

Overall, the project is already breaking new ground by collecting and connecting previously unknown textual material, thus leading to important discoveries that might change perceptions in the field of Egyptology.

It is also set to revolutionize the way in which archaeological text data collection and cataloguing is currently carried out. 

 It is also set to revolutionize the way in which archaeological text data collection and cataloguing is currently carried out.  In addition, its developing cutting-edge collaborations with mathematicians, physicists and chemists contrive a new way to study papyrus rolls without opening them. It is thus resolving a crucial challenge in the fields of conservation and archaeology by ensuring the collection of data even from the most fragile artefacts. 

Verena Lepper is the Curator for Egyptian and Oriental Papyri and Manuscripts at the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, National Museums Berlin and Honorary Professor at the Humboldt University Berlin. She qualified in Egyptology, Semitic Philology and Christian Oriental Studies in Germany (Bonn, Cologne, Tuebingen), the UK (Oxford) and the US (Harvard) and published 14 books on different aspects of Egyptology, including ancient Egyptian language, literature and papyri. She obtained an ERC Starting Grant in 2014 .  Want to see more? The complete database from Dr Lepper’s ELEPHANTINE project is due to go fully online in 2021, but a preliminary version is already accessible.