Papyrus Glossary

Some of the terms used by papyrologists can be obscure, and since many of them are Greek or Latin terms, they can be difficult to remember. If you are in doubt about the meaning or usage of a particular term, hopefully you will find it here. This listing is by no means complete, but covers some of the more common terms which may be foreign to beginners.

A Beginner's Glossary of Papyrological Terms

Cartonnage is material used for mummy wrappings. Cartonnage was often made from used papyrus, and the layers of mummy cartonnage can be separated, allowing the texts on the papyrus to be studied.
A codex is a form of text that resembles a modern book, consisting of several leaves of parchment or papyrus bound together. For more, see Ancient Book Forms. Plural codices.
Also known as a "sheet join", a kollesis is the place where two sheets of papyrus were joined together when making a roll. For roll-making, see How Papyrus Was Made. Plural kolleses.
An ostrakon is a pottery fragment (pot-sherd) used to receive writing. The term is related to the practice of ostracism, whereby Athenian citizens could vote to exile a person by casting a ballot with that person's name written on it. For an example, see Ancient Writing Materials. Plural ostraka.
A palimpsest is a text which has been reused by washing off old ink and writing new ink in the same area. An example of a palimpsest is P.Mich.inv. 2754
The term papyrus may be used to denote either the reed which grows in marshes along the Nile river, or the writing material made from the plant. Plural papyri.
A paragraphos is a horizontal line drawn near the first letter of a line of text. This mark usually indicates a break in the text, e.g. a new sentence, a change of speaker in a dramatic text, or a new poem in a collection of poetry.
Parchment is the writing material made from the hide of animals (typically sheep and goats). Vellum is the term used for especially fine material made from the skins of kids and calves, although the two terms are sometimes used interchangably.
The term recto denotes the 'front' side of a papyrus. Generally, recto refers to the side of a papyrus roll which would be written on first, where the papyrus fibers ran horizontally, parallel to the writing. This can also be thought of as the side of the papyrus that would be inside when rolled up. (see also verso)
The common form of a papyrus, a roll generally consists of several sheets of papyrus pasted together, on which the writing is in many columns written side by side, with lines running parallel to the length of the papyrus. For more on rolls, see Ancient Book Forms.
Terminus ante quem, terminus post quem
These terms are used to give an approximate date for a text. Terminus post quem is used to indicate earliest point in time when the text may have been written, while terminus ante quem signifies the latest date at which a text may have been written. One common way to assign a terminus post/ante quem is when a date is given on the opposite side of a recycled papyrus.
Transversa charta
The term transversa charta is used to describe texts written on a sheet of papyrus that was torn from a roll and written at a ninety-degree angle to the fibers.
see parchment.
The term verso denotes the 'back' side of the papyrus. As opposed to recto, it is the outside of a papyrus roll, where writing would run perpendicular to the fibers, usually only written on after the recto had been used (see recto).

Additional Terms

The following list of definitions is taken from William A. Johnson's work, Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus.

One of the various types of scribal hand commonly used for the writing of literary texts, characterized by a lack of cursive letter formations.
An elaborate marginal sign that marks a major point of division in the text, such as the end of a work.
In a Greek context, dicolon is used to distinguish a colon with two dots, (:) like the colon in English, from the single raised dot of the Greek colon.
In appearance like a right angle bracket (>) the diplê is used as a marginal signal of varying import, such as to mark noteworthy lines.
Diplê obelismenê
The diplê obelismenê or forked paragraphus is a horizontal line with a diplê or a fork affixed at the left ( ). When (as is usual) the horizontal line is positioned like a paragraphus, the diplê obelismenê marks divisions in the text more prominent than, or otherwise to be distinguished from, those marked by a simple paragraphus. The same sign is also sometimes added to the left of a line, in function and form like the diplê.
A scribal error in which a letter, syllable, or word is accidentally repeated in the text.
The specific path taken by the pen when the scribe forms a letter shape.
The line of text is said to be in eisthesis when it protrudes to the right of the notational left margin (i.e., when it is 'indented').
The eschatokollon is the last (blank) sheet in a bookroll.
Expungement dot
A dot added above a letter by the scribe as a signal to delete that letter. Used in lieu of (and sometimes in addition to) a strike through.
A common scribal error in which a letter, syllable, or word is written once instead of twice. Thus, e.g., a copyist may write corpusque for original corpususque.
An instance in which nearby words or parts of words have identical beginnings. The similarity of letter shapes can lead the scribe to skip over the intervening text or otherwise err in the copying (see haplography, parablepsy).
Intercolumn (L. intercolumnium)
The blank area between the written columns of text in a bookroll (often but rather improperly called the 'left margin' or 'right margin').
The kollêma is one of the (usually twenty) sheets of papyrus that are glued together to create a manufactured roll. Plural kollêmata.
The kollêsis is the glue joint between the sheets of papyrus (the kollêmata) in a papyrus roll. Plural kollêses.
The vertical space between lines of text, measured from base line to base line.
A bookroll where the text is written on both front (recto) and back (verso). This term does not apply when both sides are written upon because the papyrus has been reused.
A scribal error in which distraction of the eye causes an omission in the text. Haplography is a special case of this more general term.
The text as traditionally transmitted. In particular, those elements of text that the scribe intends faithfully to copy.
A horizontal line placed below a line of text at the left margin to signal a notational division (such as the end of a period, or a change of speaker). See also diplê obelismenê.
The prôtokollon is the first (blank) sheet in a bookroll.
Works with multiple 'books' (i.e., multiple bookrolls) sometimes contain, at the very end of the book, the first line of the next book, as a help with the sequential ordering of the bookrolls. This repeated line is called the reclamans.
Scriptio continua
Writing in which the letters are written one after the next without word spaces (standard practice in ancient Greek literary texts) is called scriptio or scriptura continua.
Scribes sometimes placed a letter of the Ionic alphabet in the left intercolumn after every 100 stichoi, by way of a running total. For verse texts, the count equals the number of lines; for prose texts, the stichos signifies a unit roughly equivalent to the length of a hexameter line, usually calculated at 15 or 16 syllables in length. The classic study of stichometric signs and their significance is Ohly 1928; see Obbink 1996, 62 n. 1 for more recent work.
Synkollêma, synkollêsis
When the user (as opposed to the manufacturer) glues together rolls or parts of rolls in order to create a longer unit, the glue join is the synkollêsis (which differs in a subtle way from the manufactured join). The combined papyrus roll that results is the synkollêma.
Also known as diaresis, a trêma is in appearance a double point above a letter (like an umlaut). In papyrological texts, this most often marks an iota or upsilon at the beginning of a word, though it can also (as in modern edited texts) distinguish a vowel that forms its own syllable.


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Last modified: 03/11/2014