chapter
Methodology: sources and approaches
Pages 83

The sources available for reconstructing the houses of Roman Egypt and, more importantly, how people used those houses, are uniquely rich and problematic. The papyri are our main source for the communities of Roman and late Roman Egypt and the range of documentary evidence they provide is without parallel. Historians argue whether the many thousands of inscriptions from the provinces of the Roman empire reflect the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, or at least the lives of those ‘ordinary’ people sufficiently wealthy to purchase stone monuments, but the traces of lives in the papyri, although again probably not encompassing the full socio-economic range of ancient communities, indisputably bring the lower classes to the attention of the historian. Moreover, the texts are far more varied than the epigraphic evidence, since we have far more than the tombstones and the official decrees that comprise the majority of our epigraphic record; we have the tax documents, the contracts, the letters, the receipts, and the legal documentation of the population. This is, of course, the attraction of the papyrological material for the social historian, but, frustratingly, this material is fragmentary, a fragmentation that operates at various levels. The documents themselves are often in a dreadful state and papyrologists spend weeks, months and sometimes years patching the documents together, attempting to improve readings, and assessing the nature of the gaps. The record is also patchy: some sites produce very many papyri, others have produced none. Even within sites, the chronological distribution of the documents and, indeed, the types of documents, are certainly not random, though the effect of processes of preservation and recovery on the surviving record cannot easily be reconstructed. Finally, the biographical traces in this documentation are mere fragments. There are very few people from Roman and Byzantine Egypt about whom one could construct a plausible biography without the aid of the techniques of historical fiction. Archives commence and end without any obvious rationale. People drift in and out of even the most tightly organized archives and the archives themselves tend to reflect particular aspects of people’s lives: some archives concentrate on legal and financial matters, while others consist of private letters, attesting friendships, social lives and everyday business. Normally, only selected aspects of lives are preserved and the very incompleteness of the record, which is certainly not random, discourages generalization. Moreover, most individuals are attested by only a single reference, without historical or social context and very often without even a clear location. Without context, the little histories on the papyri become anecdotes whose meaning is almost infinitely negotiable.