Decolonising Manchester's papyri collection

Dr Roberta Mazza outlines the ethics issues associated with handling ancient papyri in the collections of Manchester's John Rylands Library.

Manchester city centre has unexpected beauties; from a classicist's perspective the John Rylands Research Institute and Library is the most beautiful.

Created by a very special woman, Enriqueta Rylands, with the money inherited from her late cotton-magnate husband, the Library is not only an extraordinary late-Victorian building, but also a manuscript treasure trove. 

Dr Roberta Mazza

Dr Roberta Mazza

Lecturer in Graeco-Roman Material Culture, The University of Manchester

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Among its many treasures, there are over 4,000 papyrus fragments in various languages, which arrived in Manchester as a result of the opening of Egypt to European discoveries in the 19th century.

The presence of a Greek papyrus collection established Manchester among the leading places in which Classical and Biblical manuscripts have been discovered, deciphered and published.

As part of that tradition, our University - the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, in particular, in partnership with the John Rylands Research Institute and Library - gives students the opportunity to learn and practice papyrology.

This is a discipline (with a funky name) that has unlocked authors and works which until a century ago were thought to be forever lost and has given invaluable insights into the real lives of people living in antiquity through their everyday writings. It has also contributed to the appreciation of ancient Christianity (and other religions) as diversified and complex systems.

Few people, for instance, know that the Rylands houses one of the only two extant ancient fragments in Greek of the extra-canonical Gospel of Mary - paradoxically the one bearing the lines all the readers of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code have been reading worldwide.

This lost-and-found Gospel has shown that women were a vital and powerful force in early Christian communities and is at the core of modern feminist theology.

John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester

The John Rylands Library, Manchester

While papyrology and papyrus manuscripts have dramatically increased our knowledge of the past, they also tell unsettling stories of modern colonialism and cultural heritage misappropriation.

Together with hundreds of thousands of other artefacts, papyri were transferred from Egypt to Manchester and other European collections at the beginning of the last century with little if any awareness of the damages inflicted on the archaeological and cultural heritages of the nations of origin.

For this reason, it is nowadays of great importance to view papyrology from a wider historical perspective of modern colonialism and to practice it with much more attention to what I call the ethics of manuscripts.

It is of vital importance not only to study but also to make the public aware of the biographies of manuscripts, the way they were legally and illegally excavated and eventually exchanged on the antiquities market.

As its custodian, the University has a great responsibility towards the papyrus collection, which belongs to different communities and should be preserved for the future.

The contemporary illegal circulation of papyri and other Egyptian antiquities on the market has roots in a longer history we are part of and is a theme of contentious debate and crucial importance, especially after the Arab Spring led to an increasing number of objects appearing on offer at auctions and online.

There are many challenges, and Manchester is making a key contribution to the establishment of good practices not only in terms of conservation and the deciphering of manuscripts, but also in finding more ethical ways of bringing this important cultural heritage to the widest possible audience, in the city and beyond.

Learn more about the John Rylands Papyrus Collection and Manchester's other research within Classics and Ancient History.

Banner image: Fragment of the Gospel of Mary from the John Rylands Papyri Collection. See the original image and license.