Among tens of thousands of papyri that have survived in the sands of the Nile Valley, hundreds provide detailed evidence for a centralized system of public archives in the Roman province of Egypt. While existing research has examined individual archives and genres of records, the material awaits a detailed synthetic study. This project proposes to conduct a focused investigation of these archival institutions, examining their structure, function, role in administration and impact on documentary culture.
How were Roman provincial archives structured and how were archival records organized, classified, stored and retrieved? What did archival records enable the Roman state and its officials to do? In what respect was Roman archiving distinct from Ptolemaic and pre-Ptolemaic practice and to what extent does papyrological evidence correspond to evidence for Roman archiving in Italy and in other provinces? The creation of records, their storage in archives, and the ability to retrieve them when needed, are three distinct phenomena that do not constitute a self-evident development, nor does the mere existence of state archives necessarily signify their importance in administration. To determine this, it is necessary to examine the dynamics of the archival institutions and the ability of officials to operationalize archival records.
The project involves a comprehensive survey of the relevant documentary evidence and works with papyri in the original, examining their layout and other physical features, such as handwriting and administrative processing marks. The project aims to elucidate the specific characteristics of Roman provincial archives, posing questions of continuity and change with regard to the Ptolemaic period. Furthermore, the project will place papyrological sources in dialogue with evidence from other provinces, to test whether papyri document archival institutions that were generally present throughout the empire.
By virtue of undertaking the first systematic study of a large corpus of documentary evidence for archival institutions in Roman Egypt, the project intends to make an original and substantial contribution to the fields of Roman history and papyrology. Through its comparative angle, bridging regions and disciplinary boundaries, the project will employ different genres of available evidence toward synthetic historical and institutional arguments about the Roman Empire. The results are expected to be consequential: if indeed centralized archive systems of the sort attested in Roman Egypt had a broader presence in the Roman provinces, this would imply a much higher capacity for infrastructural power on the part of the Roman imperial state than has been previously suspected. The project expects to yield a new and very different picture of the impact of Roman imperial administration that will challenge dominant views of premodern archival technologies and potentially recast the framework of future research in this field.