Writing in Graeco-Roman Egypt
An Introduction to Papyrology

It is probably not an understatement to say that the development of written language is one of the most significant developments in human civilization. Writing marks the distinction between history and prehistory, and early written documents are extremely important to scholars in many fields, especially to those who study history, linguistics, or ancient literature.

Papyrus, pen, and inkwell from ancient Egypt

The study of early written documents from around the time of the Roman empire is known as papyrology, a term which refers to the fact that most of these documents were written on a material called papyrus (plural papyri). Papyrologists study all manner of writing done by hand, including writing done in ink or inscribed on wooden, lead, or waxed tablets. Although papyrus was used as a writing material as early as 3000 BC and as late as 1000 AD, papyrologists focus on the period beginning in the 4th century BC, when the Greeks conquered Egypt, and ending in the 7th century AD when the Arabs overtook the region.

Of course, writing occurred throughout the ancient world, but most of the examples that survive today come from Egypt. Egypt's dry, desert climate is ideal for the preservation of papyrus and other materials. In rare cases, papyri have survived outside of the desert; the Herculaneum papyri were carbonized during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, ensuring their preservation but also badly damaging the papyri. Other materials, such as wooden writing tablets, have survived as far north as Britain, near Hadrian's Wall. However, the vast majority of examples of writing from this time period come from Egypt, where the influence of first Greek and later Roman rulers created a unique blend of languages and cultures.

Continue on to learn about the Languages and Scripts of Graeco-Roman Egypt