Key concepts

General frame

Scope of this typology

Our tool displays some select material in a way that highlights the specifically typological features of those documents. We aim at describing some typical features, i.e. the most common practice followed by writers within a given context. There are many exceptions to the phenomena we are trying to describe; in some cases, those exceptions can be explained and carry some meaning as regards the typology of documents; in many other cases, however, we must simply acknowledge the fact that the practice of some writers diverged from the norm. In the following outline, the frequent use of the words ‘usually’, ‘normally’ etc. serves as a reminder of this variety of practice.


This typology is focused on documents written in Greek, the main language represented on papyri. Other languages, however, also occur on papyri (hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic and Coptic Egyptian, Latin, Arabic, Aramaean etc.), but we have limited our coverage to Greek.


This typology is focused mainly on papyri of Egyptian provenance. Most Greek papyri come from Egypt, more specifically from towns and villages along the Nile valley and on the edge of the desert. In rarer cases, they were produced in the Delta region, in the Eastern Desert or in the Oases of the Western Desert. Papyri were also found, in smaller numbers, in other areas formerly occupied by Greek or Roman populations: Italy, Greece, Israel, Syria, Romania etc.

Time span

The time span considered here is presently limited to the so-called Graeco-Roman period in a narrow sense, starting with the arrival of Alexander the Great in Egypt in 332 BCE and ending in the late third century CE. The three centuries BCE correspond roughly to the so-called Ptolemaic period, when Egypt was ruled by a Graeco-Macedonian dynasty. In 30 BCE, Egypt becomes a Roman province and the three subsequent centuries correspond to the so-called Roman period. More than 60'000 Greek documentary papyri have been published to this day, of which about 45'000 date from the period between 300 BCE and 300 CE. Very few papyri from an earlier period are preserved; in the period extending from the fourth till the seventh century (so-called Byzantine period), Greek paypri are still abundantly preserved, but the changes induced by the administrative reforms in the reign of Diocletian had a deep impact on the material. These changes set a natural limit for this first attempt at sketching a typology. An extension to the Byzantine period may be considered at a later stage of our research.


The distribution of documentary papyri along the time line is not regular: archives tend to create a concentration of documents in some more restricted periods. On the whole, documents from the Ptolemaic period are less numerous than in the Roman period, with the exception created by the large Zenon archive in the first half of the third century BCE. The distribution of published papyri peaks in the second century CE.


We shall leave aside literary and sub-literary papyri: although from a typological point of view they share some similarities with documents, on balance the differences seem too important to allow for a global coverage of all categories. The limit between the categories of literary, sub-literary and documentary papyri, however, is not always sharp; therefore, only a rough definition can be provided. It will serve as a working basis for the following description of key concepts.


By documentary papyri, we mean texts written in a free hand, with ink (i.e. not carved or scratched on a hard surface), and preserved on a portable material. At this stage, we dot not yet cover ostraca. Documentary papyri record information that is intended for immediate use or for archiving, but normally not for open posting; the information can be kept over a period of a few decades at most; it pertains to the business of official administration or to private life.


By text, we mean a string of signs (letters, symbols) that produce a consistent and self-contained set of information. These signs are written by hand and arranged on the writing support according to rules on which both the writer and the reader must previously agree. Since Greek is the language most often represented in our Egyptian papyri, the writing runs, from left to right and from top to bottom, along virtual horizontal lines; these are normally not marked by ruling.


The signs that constitute a text also occupy a surface, which is shaped and structured in various ways. A typology of papyri thus consists in understanding the rules by which the writer arranges his signs for the reader to decipher and disposes them on the available surface.

Writer and writing


A scribe is a trained writer who possesses some specific skills that enable him to produce a regular or fast writing, and to structure a text according to a recognizable layout. He can be employed in a chancery, an office, a business, or he can simply work on behalf of individuals who are not skilled enough to produce a document by themselves.

Occasional writer

Many documents are produced by occasional writers, i.e. individuals who write, but not in the capacity of trained scribes, and whose chief occupation is not writing. Some have received a training comparable to that of a scribe, but in many instances their writing is slower or less regular, and they do not master the rules of a proper layout. At times, the line separating the work of a scribe from that of an occasional writer remains unclear.


The author of a document is the person who either wrote it himself (in which case he may also be either a scribe acting on his own behalf or an occasional writer) or commissioned it for writing by a scribe. A strategos, for instance, may be the author of a letter he has dictated to a member of his staff; or an individual who does not know how to write may be the author of a petition and ask a scribe or a relative to write the text on his behalf; or a mother may be the author of a letter to her son and write it herself.


A single document can display several hands, i.e. text produced by several writers. Hands are distinguished one from another by their style.


Each writer has a distinctive way of shaping and spacing letters, and of placing lines on his sheet. Style is determined by several criteria: coherence in repeatedly reproducing a given letter in a similar fashion, coherence of shape between different letters, dimensions of letters (width / height), inclination of letters, curves and angles, etc. The same writer can use different styles, depending on the type of document, or to highlight a specific section within a document.

Writing material


Papyrus is a writing material derived from the plant Cyperus papyrus, found in large quantities in Egypt throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Its use is attested also before and after this time span. Its colour at the time of production is a creamy white; through time, it tends to darken to various shades of brown.


Papyrus allows for the production of smooth sheets with a maximal height of 40cm, more commonly 18-30cm. The sheets are normally narrower than their height. They can be assembled into rolls or codices. The fibres on one side of the sheet run at a right angle in relation to the other side. They produce a slight coarseness on the surface of the sheet. Papyrus is a relatively strong material, provided that it is protected from humidity, insects and worms. With time, it becomes brittle, and folded pieces of papyrus tend to rip apart. Therefore, fragments of papyrus occur more frequently than entirely preserved sheets or rolls.


Being the most abundant writing material found in Egypt, papyrus dwarves by its presence other writing materials, which also belong to the scope of papyrology in a broad sense. It is the most frequently attested material in this typology.


Parchment is produced from animal skin (usually sheep or goat). Its colour at the time of production is a creamy white, which remains fairly stable, although with age it tends to take a yellowish shade. Its surface is smoothed out through the manufacturing process, and cut to size. It is seldom assembled into rolls; either a sheet is cut into slips, or several sheets are assembled to form a codex. Its use occurs only sporadically before the second century AD.


Parchment is used far less frequently than papyrus for the writing of documentary texts.

Ostrakon (potsherd)

An ostrakon is a clay potsherd that was recycled for the purpose of writing. Among the many potsherds found in ancient sites of Egypt, items that carry writing represent only a tiny fraction. Colour can vary from a creamy white to grey, or a brownish orange, depending on the clay that was used in the first place. It is often the outer surface that receives the writing, but both sides can be used.


Most ostraka measure only a few centimetres in width and height; some larger pieces also occur. Their size is limited only by the original dimensions of the pot from which they were detached. This determines also the curvature of the ostrakon.


Ostrakon is a solid material with a hard surface, but can nonetheless be broken into smaller pieces. The most frequent type of damage is erasure of ink.

Wooden tablet

A wooden tablet (δέλτος) is produced by detaching a thin layer of wood from a larger block with a sharp tool. The fibres run in the same direction on all sides of the tablet. Writing can be applied either directly on the surface, with ink, or by scratching with a sharp point a layer of wax that has been spread over the surface on one side. The size of tablets is variable and depends on the size of the block from which it was detached. Tablets are infrequent among the material found in Egypt, with the exception of small wooden mummy-labels.


Wooden tablets are fairly resistant, but the writing on the surface can be erased. Wax may disappear, leaving only traces of scratching on the wooden surface below.


Bone is seldom used for writing. It comes from large domestic animals, such as camel and ox. Flat surfaces, e.g. shoulder blades, provide a surface for writing. The dimensions, shape and curvature of bone, however, clearly make this a second-choice material for writing. Colour is a creamy white. Bone is a resistant material, but the writing on the surface can be erased.


In remote areas where flat slabs of limestone are widely available, these are used for writing. Typically, the Theban region has yielded many texts written with ink on stone, dating mostly from the late Byzantine period. Height and width range from a few centimetres to a maximum of ca. 25 cm. This is a resistant material, although small chunks can get chipped off the edges of the slab.


The most frequent instrument for writing with ink in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods is a reed (κάλαμος), sharpened at one end with a knife. The width of the tip is variable, thus causing the thickness and shading of the stroke to vary accordingly.


Brushes are also used, mostly in the early Ptolemaic period. The stroke is usually thicker than with a reed pen.



The most commonly used ink, attested through the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, is made of carbon (soot) mixed with gum arabic and water. This produces a black ink, which sometimes takes a shade of grey if it has been diluted. It is resistant to light, but not to water, and can be erased with a moist sponge.


In the late Roman period, ink made of iron gall (gallic acid mixed with ferrous sulphate, gum arabic and water) appears on some papyri. Its original black colour gradually turns to brown.


Red ink is attested both in the Ptolemaic and the Roman periods. Its basic ingredient is iron oxide (hematite).

Written support


By format, we mean the physical appearance of the writing support, defined by its dimensions and shape, as well as by its orientation and fibre direction.


The layout of a text corresponds to the way it has been arranged on the surface offered by the writing support. The placing of the text, with its sections, margins, blank spaces, changes of hand, all pertain to layout.


The most common manufactured writing support is the roll (τόμος), made of separate sheets of papyrus [Turner 1978 : 11-25]. The first sheet, which serves as a protective wrapping for the rest of the roll, is called a protocollon (πρωτόκολλον). Each subsequent sheet, being pasted to the next, is called a κόλλημα. Sheets are oriented vertically and with the fibres of each sheet running horizontally (apart from the protocollon), placed side by side and pasted together, presumably by using a binding agent, since at this stage the papyrus sheets must have been dry. The process of pasting (κόλλησις) causes a small overlap of two sheets of papyrus (2-5 cm), with the sheet on the right inserted under the preceding sheet; by a modern semantic extension of the word, κόλλησις is also applied to the sheet-join [Turner 1978 : 15-16].


The height of the roll varies between 15 and 40 cm, with a normal height of 20-30 cm. Whereas the minimal length of a roll is difficult to determine, rolls written in Greek can reach a maximum length of 10-11 meters [Bülow-Jacobsen 2009].


A roll has two sides: on the so-called front, the fibres run along the length (long axis) of the roll; on the back, they run along the height of the roll. In most cases, the front side of a roll is used first; the back side can be used, normally at a later stage, for another purpose.


Sheets are usually cut off from rolls; they are not produced individually for direct use. The cut does not coincide with the κόλλησις. Therefore, a κόλλησις may appear anywhere along the width of a detached sheet.


When first cut off from the roll, a sheet is normally oriented vertically. If it is kept in this position, the writing runs along the fibres; if the sheet is turned at a right angle, its orientation becomes horizontal and the writing runs across the fibres.


This practice, however, is not universally followed. Long sheets aligned with the length (long axis) of the roll, with a height measuring half that of a roll, are to be found in some specific contexts. Also, sheets wider than the height of the roll are sometimes cut off, then turned at a right angle for writing.


Both sides of a sheet can be used, either for two stages of the same process, or for subsequent processes.


A column (σελίς) is a block of text covering the height of a sheet or of a roll; it is made of a sequence of lines arranged vertically. It is surrounded by margins on all sides. Columns are placed side by side in a roll; or two columns can occupy a page in a codex.


A codex is made of several sheets folded along a vertical axis to make a quire and assembled with a binding, often a string sewn through the fold. In the case of documentary texts, papyrus is the most commonly used material, wooden tablets being also attested; parchment codices tend to contain literary or sub-literary texts. A codex can consist of a single quire, or be made of several quires bound together.


This word is used only in the case of codices. It corresponds to one side of a half-sheet, from the outer margin to the binding in the middle. In other words, a sheet in a codex holds four pages.

Recto and verso

Strictly speaking, recto and verso should be used only in the case of a codex. When two facing pages are visible, separated by the fold, the right-hand page corresponds to the recto, and the left-hand page, to the verso. On the back of every recto, there is a verso.


In many papyrus editions, recto and verso are applied to the front and the back of a single sheet. Although this confusion causes few actual misunderstandings, it seems preferable to avoid it and to keep recto and verso for codices.

Direction of fibres

When sheets are assembled into a roll, the fibres on the front run in the direction of the length (long axis) of the roll; on the back, they run at a right angle in relation to the front. When, however, a sheet is cut off a roll, it can be used either with its original orientation, or turned at a right angle.


We indicate the direction of fibres in relation with the direction of writing. Either the fibres are parallel with the writing (→), or they run at a right angle with the writing (↓).


In the case of codices, each sheet holds four pages, with a sequence → ↓ ↓ → or ↓ → → ↓.

Layout of a column


Lines are a sequence of letters and other signs that are placed side by side along a horizontal axis. Lines are separated by a space, which can be more or less regular. The overall width of subsequent lines determines the horizontal dimensions of a column and of the adjoining margins.


A margin is the unwritten space left between a block of text occupying a column and either the edges of a papyrus sheet, or the next column. If the lines in a column are arranged along a vertical axis, the dimensions of the corresponding vertical margin remain the same through the height of the column; if there is a drift in the vertical alignment of lines, the dimensions of the vertical margin vary accordingly.


In relation with the vertical alignment of lines in a column, some lines can be indented (i.e. shifted) either to the left (ἔκθεσις) or to the right (εἴσθεσις). This shift can highlight, for instance, a distinctive part of a heading, or a signature at the bottom of a document.

Blank space, window and vacat

Writers sometimes leave an unwritten area between two lines, thus creating a blank space – or window – that can either highlight the structure of a document or receive some additional writing at a later stage.


A so-called vacat is a space left unwritten in a line.

Text structure

Defining a syntax

In all parts of a documentary papyrus, the supplied information is ruled by a syntax that is closely linked to the type of document taken into consideration. It is characterized, among other criteria, by the order of appearance of the various elements that constitute the information, by the use of grammatical cases (with or without a preposition), and by the presence of necessary or optional information. We use the following signs to describe this syntax:


[ ] = structural element.


Structural elements may carry various labels, such as:

  • from
  • to
  • with
  • through
  • date
  • place
  • age
  • number
  • physical description
  • etc.


< > = grammatical parameter (case, number, gender, time, mode, voice etc.).


italics = attribute


Attributes may carry various labels, such as:

  • name
  • function
  • month
  • day
  • number
  • etc.


χαίρειν = necessary additional information.


(χαίρειν) = optional information.


/ = alternative possibility


The opening section provides some essential information on the process of transmission of information. Some of the following elements may appear:

  • Name of the person who prepared the document (sender).
  • Name of the person who should receive the information (addressee).
  • Place.
  • Date.
  • Title describing the contents of the document.
  • An opening salutation.
Section Syntax Example
Letter opening [from name <nom.>] [to name (official / relative / friend) <dat.>] [χαίρειν] Σαραπίων Ἀμμωναρίῳ τῇ μητρὶ χαίρειν.
[to name <dat.>] [from name <nom.>] ([χαίρειν]) Ἀλεξάνδρῳ Φίλων
Business Letter with expanded opening [from name <nom.>] [to name <dat.>] ([through διά name (function) <gen.>]) χαίρειν Στοτοῆτις Μενάνδρῳ διὰ Νίκωνος χειριστοῦ χαίρειν.
Request sent to an authority [to name function <dat.>] [from παρά name <gen.>] [with μετὰ (κυρίου) name (function) <gen.>] Πλουτάρχῳ στρατηγῷ παρὰ Τασουχαρίου μετὰ κυρίου τοῦ ἀνδρὸς Διογένους.
Business note opening [from παρά name <gen.>] Παρὰ Πεκύσεως.
Business note footer [to name <dat.>] Ἡρακλείδει.
Opening section of a contract drafted in a notary’s office (objective formulation) [date regnal year <gen.> emperor’s titulature <gen.> month <gen. / invariable> day <dat.>] [place ἐν village / city <dat.> (nome <gen.>)] Ἔτους δεκάτου Ἁδριανοῦ Καίσαρος τοῦ κυρίου, Φαῶφι ε, ἐν Φιλαδελφείᾳ τῆς Ἡρακλείδου μερίδος τοῦ Ἀρσινοΐτου νομοῦ.

Main text

This section contains the essential information that determines the type of document, as for example:

  • In a letter, one may find the expression of a request, or some data on a transaction, or simply a wish of well-being.
  • In a contract, the main body will specify what kind of transaction is being handled, and under what terms.
  • In a petition, the plaintiff will provide an authority with a description of the event or situation that led him to take action.
  • The sequence of entries in a list constitute the main text, as opposed to a heading or to an opening or closing section.
Section Syntax Example
Beginning of the contract description [ὁμολογεῖ] [from name <nom.> (parent(s) name <gen.>) (age ὡς ἐτῶν number <gen.> physical description body mark <nom.> location of body mark <dat.>)] [to name <dat.>] Ὁμολογεῖ Αὐρηλία Κυρίλλα μητρὸς Σαραπιάδος ὡς ἐτῶν κε οὐλὴ ἀντικνημίῳ ἀριστερῷ Αὐρηλίῳ Διδύμῳ...

The closing section comes after the main text and can consist of one or more of the following elements:

  • Signature: by adding his name, together with a verb indicating some kind of confirmation (e.g. σεσημείωμαι, where a seal may have only a virtual existence), an individual gives authority to a document that was prepared by another party.
  • Transmission docket: by adding his name, together with a verb indicating transmission (e.g. ἐπιδέδωκα), the author of a document formally states that he has submitted it to the relevant authority.
  • Subscription: a subscription – or apostil – is a note added to the bottom of a document by the addressee, providing some feedback about the information received through the document. Unless it is quoted indirectly, it is normally written by another hand.
Section Syntax Example
Signature / Transmission docket [from name (function) <nom.>] [σεσημείωμαι / ἐπιδέδωκα] Ἑρμᾶς σεσημείωμαι.
Πέταυς κωμογραμματεὺς ἐπιδέδωκα.


In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, a date normally consists of a regnal year (with titulature), month name (mostly Egyptian, but also Macedonian or Roman, including honorific month-names) and day. In the Ptolemaic period, it can be preceded by a list of eponymous priests.


The place of a date is important for identifying the context in which the document was written: in the Roman period, for instance, a [date@start] placed at the beginning of a contract invariably indicates that it was prepared by an official service, not by a private individual; see [Wolff 1978b : 87 and 123]. A [date@end] is typical of a privately produced document.


An abstract summarizes the contents of a document, e.g. a contract.


An address, usually written on the back of a sheet, indicates the name of the addressee, and sometimes of the sender. It is distinct from instructions for delivery (σημασία).

Section Syntax Example
Address [ἀπόδος] ([to name <dat.>]) ([place ἐν village / city <dat.>]) ([from ἀπό / παρά name <gen.>]) Ἀπόδος Ἀπολλωνίῳ ἐν Τεβτύνει παρὰ Νεμεσιλλης.
Ἀπόδος Ἀνουβίωνι ἀπὸ Τασουχαρίου.

Copies and embedded documents

A document can be a copy (ἀντίγραφον) from an original. Through this process, it loses most of the layout found in the original document. There may be several embedded documents, such as the quoted text of a letter or of a petition. Several layers of copying may occur, whereby a sender inserts in a document a copy from another document that already contains a copy of a third one.


How to Cite

Nury, E., Schubert, P. Grammateus Project: Key Concepts. grammateus project. DOI: 10.26037/yareta:kbcq3yofvvdd5pxkeryw5yvt44