Working With Special Collections: Meet Phillip Caprara

Phillip Caprara presenting on Greek and Coptic Magical Papyri to Dr. Jenott’s Freshman seminar, “Sexuality in Early Christianity.”

When Phillip Caprara, a current doctoral student in Washington University in St. Louis’s Classics department, first saw the university’s collection of over 400 papyri fragments, he could immediately tell that it needed some care, and he was just the person to provide it.

This collection, owned by the Washington University Classics department and housed in Special Collections, has never been published in its entirety. Although some of the pieces have been published in a two-volume set Papyri from the Washington University Collection Parts I and II and some have even been made available online, Phillip claims that close to three quarters of the collection has never been published in any form, and he is working to change that.

Much Work to Be Done

A piece of papyrus from Washington University’s collection.

Phillip is a papyrologist, with a master’s degree in Classics with a sub-focus on papyrology from Oxford University and a deep passion for learning about and from ancient cultures. He believes that papyri fragments like those housed at Washington University in St. Louis provide a crucial, and often underappreciated, way of understanding what went on in the daily lives of Egyptians two millennia ago, and that when such collections are not optimally preserved and accessible, we may miss out on important lessons from that history.

Phillip’s first goal for Wash U’s collection of papyri is to get the entire collection housed properly so that it all will continue to be available for future scholars. Although a portion of the collection has been placed in glass enclosures, others are being kept on acid-free paper in manila folders. Even some of the pieces that have been encased in glass have been conserved improperly and need to be desalted and re-glassed so that they do not decay over time.

Phillip’s second goal for the collection is to make it more accessible. One way he hopes to do this is by creating a better filing system for the papyrus so that it will be easier for patrons to find, like the Dewey Decimal System that is currently used for cataloging books in some libraries. He also wants to make the entire collection available digitally, so that it can be accessed by scholars who cannot travel to the Washington University campus. He is working on creating translations for some of the pieces that have not been translated before, but his main goal is to create high-resolution images of all of the fragments in the collection so that anyone who can read Ancient Greek can work on the fragments themselves.

Another way that Phillip is working to make the collection more visible is by bringing papyrological knowledge into the classroom. He has given a number of guest lectures on what papyrus can teach us about the ancient world, such as how students in antiquity learned to write and compose in Greek, or what magical spells written on papyri can reveal  about the relationships between the caster and the victim. He has even taught students how to make their own sheets of papyrus. He hopes that these lessons will get more students interested in papyri fragments and what they can teach us about the ancient world.

Phillip Caprara presenting on Greek and Coptic Magical Papyri to Dr. Jenott’s Freshman seminar, “Sexuality in Early Christianity.”

Interesting Pieces from the Collection

Washington University’s collection of papyrus comes from the Oxyrhynchus archeological site, which has produced the largest collection of papyrus found to date. Many of the papyri fragments found on this site were discovered in what is believed to be a rubbish heap. Although Washington University’s collection does include a few literary and sub-literary texts, including a fragment from the Iliad, a fragment of Demosthenes’ First Philippic, and a piece of a Homeric scholia, a majority of the collection is comprised of more quotidian pieces like receipts, letters, court documents, and even a love letter.

A piece of papyrus from Washington University’s collection.

Although receipts and letters might not seem as exciting as a fragment of Homer, Phillip argues that these pieces give us a sense of the past that we cannot get from literature alone. Much of what we know about the everyday lives of ancient Egyptians and the workings of their government comes from papyri. One of the pieces Phillip is currently working with is a fragment of a letter of complaint from two brothers who returned from military service to find that their land had been seized by a local presbyter, or church elder. Although seemingly trivial, this fragment raises a number of interesting questions about how land ownership worked in Oxyrhynchus during the 2nd/3rd century AD. Was the church allowed to seize the land of private citizens? If so, why did these men feel they had a legal claim? In not, how was the church able to acquire the land while the brothers were away? It is fragments likes this letter, scraps of paper thrown out in an ancient rubbish heap, that have guided Phillip’s research into Graeco-Roman antiquity into areas he had never before thought of pursuing.

Upcoming Papyrology Conference at Washington University

Phillip and others from the Classics department are preparing for the American Society of Papyrologists biennial 2018 summer seminar in papyrology which will be held in the Olin Library on Washington University’s Danforth campus from July 9-August 11, 2018. The program will bring together some of the world’s top papyrologists along with junior scholars in the field with the ultimate goal of producing a third volume of Papyri from the Washington University Collection. In addition to the published volume, the seminar will serve as a practicum, allowing participants to acquire the hands-on experience necessary to become productive and successful papyrologists. Anyone interested in applying is encouraged to submit an application. The link provided will direct you to the section of American Society of Papyrologists webpage dedicated to the summer seminar:

For more general information about the Washington University papyri collection, you can check out our previous post on the collection here.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.