ABSTRACT

On a spring afternoon in March 1996, a group of papyrologists gathered around a computer screen in the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents (CSAD) in Oxford to examine digital photographs taken two months earlier of a demotic papyrus recording a barely legible population register from the Lycopolite nome. The excitement of the moment is captured in an account by one of the participants, Professor Dorothy Thompson:1

(Willy) Clarysse and (John) Tait are together in Oxford for a conference and Ursula Kaplony-Heckel from Marburg is also here. It is with some trepidation that they call up the images on the screen in the Documents Centre. Will the text really be more legible than when they last worked together on the original and made only insignificant changes to their earlier readings? (Thompson looks on and listens as they start to look at the screen.) First they must locate where they are (that comes quickly), learn to play with the image, to zoom in and out on the difficult readings and to work the colour contrast that highlights the ink that was faded. Soon work is under way. Three people, no longer crouched and hunched but sitting at ease, stare across at the screen together; the adrenaline starts to flow. Suggestions for readings are made; a quick flip of the screen to two columns earlier allows a speedy check with names and elements of names that went before. Gods’ determinatives emerge, a host of local names; the script comes to life. Decipherment is underway; the parts that before were illegible slowly take their place on the page. The transcription is transformed; the text grows and, though much of this damaged text is still obscure, it is significantly improved [Figure 5.1]. I have seen the future and this future works – at least so far. Work in different countries on the same text at the same time can now take place without problem and for a long and difficult text, where the writing is small and faded,

1 D.J. Thompson, ‘Digitising a Lycopolite Census’, CSAD Newsletter 2 (spring 1996): 1-2, <https://www.csad.ox.ac.uk/CSAD/Newsletters/Newsletter2/Newsletter2a.html>;. All urls current at the time of writing.