Piecing together history: Student discoveries at The Bancroft Library’s Center for the Tebtunis Papyri provide a window into antiquity

February 27, 2024

Man wearing straw hat and white tshirt gives two thumbs up while standing in desertWill Sieving didn’t expect to discover something new in the text of a 2,000-year-old fragment of papyrus, especially one that had been pored over by scholars for the better part of a century.

Sieving, then an undergraduate apprentice at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, simply planned to translate the text and study the associated scholarship. He hoped the research would help him better understand the economics of Ptolemaic Egypt (305 B.C.E.-30 B.C.E.) and inform his senior thesis in the Department of Ancient Greek & Roman Studies.

To Sieving’s surprise — and excitement — he found that his translation diverged from those of all previous scholars. “I see what they were going for,” he says, “but I think (the text) says something else.”  

The research offers a fresh solution to a puzzle that has flummoxed papyrology experts for more than 100 years, shining light on the administration of the monetary economy in ancient Egypt — and, as it turns out, altering the course of Sieving’s life.

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