The Petra Papyri

In the early 1990s, on a hillside above the city center of ancient Petra, ACOR excavated a Byzantine church with beautiful mosaic floors. During preparations for building a shelter to protect the church, in December 1993, archaeological probing within a side storage room revealed papyrus scrolls that had been carbonized in the fire that destroyed the church early in the 7th century. Painstaking efforts by archaeologists, conservators, and papyrologists have resulted in the identification of some 140 scrolls from these blackened remains.

The scrolls are part of a 6th-century archive of the family of Theodoros, son of Obodianos, who was deacon and then archdeacon, presumably in what we know today as the Petra Church, which the papyri tell us was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Essentially economic in nature, these documents refer to matters such as dowries, divisions of estates, property boundaries, and loans. In the only completely preserved document, known as Petra Papyrus 6, a landlord priest named Epiphanios claims to have lost several items—including a key, six birds (maybe pigeons), and a table—when his tenant, a clergyman named Hierios, departed. Epiphanios accused Hierios of theft. On a larger historical scale, we learn that laws promulgated in Constantinople by the Emperor Justinian were put into effect in Petra virtually within the year. These everyday records have provided considerable insight into Petra and the wider region at this time.

Papyrus Petra 6. (ACOR Archive.)

The written language of the scrolls is mostly Greek, and there are also a few lines of Latin. However, some personal names based on Arabic reflect the Nabataean ancestry of many individuals. These, and many of the place names, bear witness to the fact that members of the family who owned the archive communicated in an Arabic dialect.

A team of papyrologists from Finland conserved these 6th century texts from 1994 to 1995 at ACOR in Amman as part of a major effort headed by Jaakko Frösén. The original fragments were placed on so-called rice paper (which is actually a type of archival paper that is acid-, lignin-, and sulfur-free) and sandwiched between glass plates so that they could be simultaneously preserved and examined for study. Some scrolls have writing on both sides and thus could not be mounted on paper, but most are single-sided. Many texts have been translated and published in The Petra Papyri series by scholars from Finland and the University of Michigan. Some documents are exhibited at the Jordan Museum in Amman.

ACOR is honored to maintain this invaluable collection of papyri—the largest cache of ancient documents yet found in Jordan—and to assist the scholars who have expended so much time and effort to make them accessible to the world.

ACOR is also responsible for the publication of these important documents, which have in many ways re-written the history of the 6th century in the eastern Mediterranean and have certainly brought to life an extended family of late antiquity.

The above summary was originally prepared by Barbara A. Porter, Ph.D. and last updated in August 2020.

Curious to learn about the Petra Papyri in greater detail?

We encourage you to explore The Petra Papyri series, published by ACOR. Click on a book cover to visit our online book marketplace. Books may also be purchased in person in Amman at reduced rates.

You can also learn more about the Petra Papyri through our public lecture series:

Al-Ghul, Omar. 2019. “.برديات بترا‫:ذاكرة المدينة و أهلها في القرن السادس الميلادي‬‬‬‬‬”‬ (Lecture in Arabic.) Youtube video, 43:27, 5 December 2019.
‬Frösén, Jaakko; Antti Arjava, and Barbara Porter. 2018. “ACOR Public Lecture and Book Launch: The Petra Papyri V.” (Lecture in English.) YouTube video, 1:10:30, 4 November 2018.

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