General Introduction

Typology: defining the concept


Grammateus is a tool designed to help papyrologists – and scholars working in fields related with papyrology – to gain a better grasp of the typology of Greek documentary papyri from Egypt. By typology, we mean the rules underlying the production of texts by scribes with various levels of competence.


When confronted with the task of producing a given document, a scribe did not proceed arbitrarily: on the contrary, he applied a routine that resulted from a tradition of scribal practice. The guidelines he followed could be more or less strict, depending on the type of document and its readership. He would choose the size of his sheet of papyrus, its orientation, and would write his text so as to convey the information in a straightforward fashion.


The rules followed by the scribe correspond to various types, that are determined not only by the contents, but also by a loose tradition that identified implicit strains: for example, a contract could borrow its layout from a general type corresponding to letters; or it could follow the general type of declarations, which is structurally different.


Such variations do not take place in a haphazard way. In most cases, it is possible to provide an explanation for them. This is – going beyond the mere description of phenomena – the purpose of typology. Types are not established once and for all. They evolve through time along with the changes made in the administrative system of Graeco-Roman Egypt. They may also vary depending on the area of Egypt where a given document was written.



This short overview of the corpus is complemented by a fuller description, Key Concepts.


In the long term, we aim to cover all document types found on Greek papyri from Egypt. At this stage, however, we have limited our corpus to examples from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, i.e. from the late fourth century BCE till the third century CE. A little more than sixty thousand Greek documentary papyri have been published so far, of which about three quarters belong to the time span we have selected. We have excluded literary and so-called paraliterary papyri (e.g. school exercises, religious and magical texts, medical and technical treatises etc.).


When examining a type, we first consider all items that seem to correspond to this type. We do not retain all cases, but select representative examples, following several criteria (none is exclusive):

  1. Fully preserved documents (or at least sufficiently preserved to give some relevance to a description of the type).
  2. Digital image available online.
  3. Wide chronological and geographical coverage.
  4. Variation in the material aspects of the document (size, shape, sheet orientation, fibre direction, organisation of the text on the sheet), alongside the content.

In our display, all papyri are referenced through their Trismegistos (TM) numbers. We also provide the standard reference as generally recognized by papyrologists (e.g. TM 8983 = BGU 1 22).



The grammateus tool is linked to the database, which allows the display of the text of most currently published Greek documentary papyri. Since our interface relies directly on the data provided by in the xml format (open source), the display is always up-to-date, in real time, adapting to any changes made by For dating, we rely on the metadata found in HGV. The borrowed metadata are associated with our own, which we maintain in a series of matrices, freely available to all on request.

Our perspective on typology


We start from the scribe’s task, not from established types. From this perspective, we identify four main tasks:

  1. Epistolary Exchange A communication channel is opened between a sender and an addressee, with the expectation of a possible reply. Letters belong to this category; but some other documents, e.g. tax receipts and contracts, borrow from the original type of an epistolary exchange and apply it to a different kind of content, where no exchange is implied.
  2. Transmission of Information. Some data are addressed to another party; but this is a one-way channel of communication and no reply is expected through the same channel. Declarations to a civilian authority often correspond to this category, but business notes and contracts sometimes borrow from the original type of a declaration.
  3. Objective Statement. An external observer acknowledges an action taken by an individual or a group: for instance, a notary states that two parties have made a contract together. Many tax receipts are also worded in the form of an objective statement.
  4. Recording of Information. This type corresponds to lists and registers, where repetitive items are recorded in an orderly sequence, sometimes over many columns of text.

For the purposes of classification, we categorise each of these tasks as a Type, within which there can be a number of sub-types. These are the model documents: e.g. under the Type Epistolary Exchange, we refer to the Sub-types Private Letter, Official Letter, Cheirographon, etc. Further, some of these sub-types can have Variations: e.g. variations of the Private Letter are Letters of Recommendation, Condolence, etc.


In completing his task, the scribe has a number of options within each category. There are some Sub-types that appear under more than one Type: e.g. a receipt can be drawn up as a letter [Receipt] and also as an objective statement [Receipt] . We aim to describe each of these typological models by encompassing all aspects of the production of the document. The establishment of a basic classification enables us to map the relationships between the various document types and sub-types, and in some cases highlight an evolutionary link. The complete classification model can be seen here.

How to use the database


We have considered the following approaches to this database:

  1. Search window. Users may search the database by entering keywords, types or TM numbers in the top right search window. They may also use the filters to narrow down a search from a general model type to various sub-types. Other criteria are available, such as the general shape of the papyrus sheet or the direction of fibres. For dating, we have purposely limited the precision level to a century because types tend to evolve at a slow pace. Search helps and tips are also provided.
  2. Classification. Users can find an explanation and description of each of the four classification Types, and corresponding papyri, in the links beside each title. Sub-type description. Users may want to learn about the main characteristics of a given Sub-type of document, e.g. declarations: what do they look like, and how are they prepared by scribes? For each sub-type there may be variations, e.g. camel declarations, and we provide summary descriptions with links to representative cases.
  3. Display of representative cases. For each type of document, we have selected some representative cases, for which we provide a structural display e.g. a petition, a business letter. From every recorded item, it is possible to access the type description. Together with general references, users will find typological data such as dimensions, direction of fibres, sheet orientation etc. The papyrus display shows the structure and proportions of the document, not the actual layout. It is not meant for the reading of the text. Icons in the top right part of the window will take users to the corresponding items in (Papyrological Navigator), the Heidelberger Gesamtverzeichnis (HGV), Trismegistos (TM), and a digital image of the papyrus when available.

How to Cite

Ferretti, L., Fogarty, S., Nury, E., Schubert, P. Grammateus Project: General Introduction. grammateus project. DOI: 10.26037/yareta:nfqjruho2zgp5lkcyvivyj2miy