Papyrus Series II: Guarding Grapes

From the University of Cincinnati:

If you weren’t careful, you might end up beaten by grape thieves skulking in the darkness.

A University of Cincinnati graduate student writes about the contractual obligations of vineyard guards and researchers from around the world contribute more stories from ancient times in the most recent volumes of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists (BASP).

UC’s Peter van Minnen, associate professor of classics, has edited the international journal since 2006. BASP is an annual collection of articles and reviews pertaining to important discoveries from around the world in the field of papyrology – the study of ancient texts on papyrus and other materials.

The latest volume of BASP is the 50th in the series and the eighth to have been edited at UC. The recently published journal features 35 contributions from 26 writers from 11 countries. The previous year’s volume features 44 contributions from 41 writers from 14 countries. Each of the past two volumes includes content in three languages.

In “Guarding Grapes in Roman Egypt (P.Mich. inv. 438),” UC graduate student Kyle Helms details what he deciphered from a roughly 3-by-5 inch shred of dark brown papyrus dating back to the fourth century.

In large, cursive script, the hired guard outlines his labor contract: “I agree that I have made a contract with you on the condition that I guard your property, a vineyard near the village Panoouei, from the present day until vintage and transport, so that there be no negligence, and on the condition that I receive in return for pay for all of the aforementioned time” an unknown amount of money, as the papyrus is broken off at the bottom.

In his contribution, Helms references another papyrus record of a vineyard guard who was beaten by “violent and rapacious” criminals while attempting to chase them from the vineyard.

… not sure why, but I’m having a heckuva time getting hold of recent volumes of academic journals, especially those with a papyrological bent. With that in mind, if anyone has access to the most recent BASP, I’d be grateful if someone could give me an idea of the source of this particular papyrus (dare I use the apparently increasingly taboo word ‘provenance’?). Established collection? Recent acquisition? Please tell me via a comment.

ADDENDUM (a few minutes later): See now John Dillon’s helpful comment on this.This is a PMich. item found in the 1920s, but with no clear origin before that.

5 thoughts on “Papyrus Series II: Guarding Grapes

  1. The TOC for the BASP volume
    identifies the papyrus as P.Mich. inv. 438. In a major collection such as Michigan’s an inventory number that low makes it unlikely that this will have been a recent acquisition. Michigan’s own data sheet on the papyrus (quickly found by googling “P.Mich. inv. 438”)
    says that while its provenance is unknown it was purchased in Egypt in 1920 (by two scholars whose names are household words among papyrologists, B. P. Grenfell and Francis Kelsey).

    1. Thanks … I had a note that it was a P.Mich but needed confirmation. So we have ‘traditional old collection’, but beyond that it’s sketchy. Basically something we’re used to.

  2. Michigan’s APIS database ( will give basic acquisition information for any papyrus in the collection. The fuller acquisition reports are also online: The report for 1920 is simply an inventory prepared by A.S. Hunt, but more information can be found in J.G. Pedley’s The Life and Work of Francis Willey Kelsey, pp. 271 ff. (, which makes use of Kelsey’s diary. And I can’t not mention the somewhat eerie picture of Kelsey and Grenfell touring Theadelphia during the spring of 1920:

  3. Thanks much for mention of the thing at Google books, by the way … it’s fills one of the ‘holes’ I’ve been dealing with in this series …

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