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Better with Age

Learn more about LSA’s papyrology collection and its many mysteries—including ones about ancient societies, literature, religion, commerce, and more.
by Brian Short

This is an article from the fall 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

The University of Michigan’s Papyrology Collection isn’t just the biggest in North America, it’s also the most diverse — with the most time periods, the most languages, the most kinds, types, and genres of any papyrology collection on the continent.

There are items from the time of King David in Israel to the reign of Henry VIII in England, including pieces written in hieroglyphics, hieratic, Coptic, Demotic, Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. The archive includes an estimated 18,000 pieces of papyrus as well as other ancient materials such as wooden mummy tags, wax and clay tablets, leather, parchment, linen, and potsherds.

It’s also a surprisingly personal collection of items. Standing in the archive, one often feels as if one is peeking over the shoulder of people who lived and died thousands of years ago.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, newspapers in England and the United States carried news of archaeological discoveries from around the world, with a strong focus on biblical finds and material on Egyptian monarchs. But the emphasis of papyrology as a field has changed dramatically since then, moving from the worlds of pharaohs and prophets, of prefects and apocrypha, to one that looks more closely at the lives of everyday people.

“In the beginning, people were looking for books and biblical texts,” says Arthur Verhoogt, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Papyrology and Greek and the acting archivist for the collection from 2010 to 2013. “Now we’re very excited about accounts. You can look at an account and see, for example, when a scribe gets busy and he starts buying lamp oil and paying for more assistants. He’s obviously getting busy, right. You can get a sense of what was happening in a specific place, in a specific room, almost 2,000 years later.”

“For the most part, when you’re dealing with ancient Greek and Roman history, you’re dealing very often with broad-brush pictures of politics at the very highest level,” says Brendan Haug, assistant professor of classical studies and the current archivist of the papyrology collection. “But papyri, because they derive from much lower social strata, can open a window onto everyday people doing everyday things. They’re paying taxes. They’re filling out a census. They’re buying vegetables or lamp oil. Sometimes, they’re even doodling.”


Haug points out a number of pieces that communicate powerfully and immediately certain truths about the lives of ancient people. He shows a plank of wood used by a child learning to write syllables where, in one section, the child has clearly added a syllable that they forgot to write their first time through. He shows a potsherd with a list of gods’ names on it, gods that might have been deemed worthy of veneration by whomever was using the shard of pottery to practice their writing. 

There are birth certificates and death certificates, marriage contracts and account ledgers. All of the items contain valuable information about what was happening at the time, about the ways in which people worked and lived and thought. 

“People touring the collection show so much enthusiasm,” Verhoogt says, “partly because when they think about ancient Egypt, they think about pharaohs, they don’t think about people. But there were 2.5 million real people living there that were dealing with things similar to what people deal with every day right now.” 

The University of Michigan Papyrology Collection holds numerous artifacts touching on death. There are mummy tags and death certificates and court papers recording a complicated dispute over the estate of a deceased military veteran. At least as surprising and affecting, though, are artifacts that record ancient lives as they are beginning. There are letters sent from children to parents announcing a pregnancy (top left); the birth certificate of a little girl, the child of Roman citizens (top right); wax tablets and wooden writing surfaces recording children’s schoolwork (bottom left); and a delightful doodle of an elephant (bottom right).  (It should be noted that we do not know with certainty the age of the doodler. They may have been young  —  or just young at heart.)

One type of document that gives some insight into the personality of people from the other side of history are personal letters. One letter shows a son writing to his mother to let her know that his wife is pregnant. Another shows a daughter chastising her mother for what the daughter has taken as ill treatment, and includes what might be subtle shade-throwing as the daughter refers to her sisters as “your daughters” instead of as “my sisters.” 

Among the collection are two letters that Haug brings out for display quite a bit. They are from a sailor named Apollinarius writing to his mother, and they bear a great deal in common with the kind of letter that a soldier might send home to his parents today. 

“We know exactly where his mother lived, because the address is right here on the back of the document,” Haug says. “And we know where it was sent from, the port of Rome, because Apollinarius tells us where he is. He’s writing home to tell his mother that he’s okay and to let her know he’ll write again when he knows where he’s being deployed to. And he writes again later to give her that information. That’s all we have of their correspondence — two letters, both from the son to the mother. But it’s an immediately recognizable moment. A young man wants his mom to know where he is. He wants her to know he’s okay. Anybody can identify with that.” 


It can be tricky, Haug says, figuring out what’s going on in a specific piece of papyrus when it’s first encountered. Some are just small fragments that have been rolled or balled up and need to be unwound before anyone can attempt reading them. Once you’ve got the papyrus flat, then you’re examining the piece for basic details, Haug says: the language it’s written in, whether there’s a date affixed somewhere, and what genre of document is being examined — literary or documentary. 

If there’s no date, then handwriting can sometimes be used to suss out a rough timeframe. Earlier Greek writing, for example, tends to hang from the line above the letter, while later Greek letters are equally constrained by the lines above and below them. It’s remarkable, Haug says, how accurate you can date a piece just by examining the handwriting.

“You can reliably get the century, and often you can say whether it was written in the first half or the second half of the century,” Haug says. “And we can do that because we have so many thousands of thousands of thousands of documents that can be dated exactly to the day because the date is right on there.”

The eighteenth book of the Iliad, partly pictured above, begins with the fabled warrior Achilles learning of his cousin Patroclus’s death at the hands of the Trojan hero Hector. Achilles wails, mourning Patroclus. It’s an epic passage, featuring big emotions, a fateful decision on the part of a storied hero, and divine intervention.
PRIVATE LETTER  |  P. Mich.inv. 4527
Far from home, the real-life egyptian sailor Apollinarius writes home to let his mother know that he has arrived safely in Portus, the port of ancient Rome, and that he’ll write again soon when he knows where he’s being deployed. He asks to hear about her health and well-being, that she convey his greetings and well wishes to his brothers, and that she write him back. 


The papyrology archive regularly hosts classes in its space on the eighth floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library. Some classes visit and study for only a few sessions, where students are acquainted with physical objects from the time periods that they’re studying in courses on the Middle East, biblical history, or ancient languages. 

Other courses, including one on general papyrological research skills taught by Haug himself, hold class in the archive and work on translating previously untranslated documents. Students — including advanced undergraduate and graduate students working together — are paired up and given four documents to translate over the course of the semester. Haug tries to choose pieces that are legible, but even pieces that might have been clear to readers 2,000 years ago can stymie rookie researchers today. 

“The first thing students have to do is form an alphabet,” Haug says. “What does this writer’s alphabet look like — their alpha, beta, gamma, etc.? Then the students have to figure out how those letters combine to form basic syllabic units, basic lexical units. Then you have to try to read the actual lines one after the other.

“It’s really hard,” Haug says. “That first time, there’s this deer-in-the-headlights look. The writing is cursive. It looks nothing like a printed, modern textbook of ancient Greek is going to look. Doing that by yourself can be kind of miserable, so we pair people up so they can work together toward a shared goal of figuring out something extremely difficult.” 

“From the beginning, papyrology has been a very collaborative field,” Verhoogt says. “Two pairs of eyes are better than one pair of eyes. And digital archives make it much easier to share and collaborate. People can see whether there’s anything that connects to whatever they’re working on, and all of that happens much faster than it used to.”

Verhoogt is also associate dean for academic programs and initiatives at U-M’s Rackham Graduate School, and this is something he thinks a lot about for the students he serves there.

“Collaboration is one of the skills that we need to train all of our students on, including graduate students,” Verhoogt says. “It’s a critical skill to have not only if you go into academia. Employers are looking for people with strong collaborative skills. In terms of that, I think we’re ahead of the curve.” 


The vast majority of the university’s papyrus collection comes from Egypt, where a dry, arid environment has preserved texts that would have rotted away in wetter climates. Most was either purchased or procured by archeological pioneer and esteemed classics and Latin Professor Francis W. Kelsey on his tour of the Middle East or was rediscovered through his 11- year seasonal dig at Karanis, Egypt, in the 1920s and 1930s. 

An accomplished scholar of the ancient world as well as one of the instigators of the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor and the Archaeological Institute of America, Kelsey believed that students needed to encounter ancient objects in real life — not just read about them in books. His efforts to secure ancient material for the university’s collection were accomplished specifically for this goal — so students could hold and see and reflect on material from people from the other side of the world and the other side of history. 

BOOK OF THE DEAD  |  P.Mich.inv. 3524
Written in red and black ink in hieroglyphics and hieratic — a cursive form of abridged hieroglyphics — this fragment of the Egyptian Book of the Dead depicts a scene in which an offering is proffered to the hawk-headed god Re-Harakhte. What is often called the Book of the Dead was actually titled the Book of Coming Forth by Day to the ancient Egyptians. The books held a series of spells and instructions to guide the dead through the perils of the afterlife so they could achieve paradise or be reborn. 

While the first acquisition positioned the university’s papyrus collection for success by including a range of languages and types of documents, the storage of early documents left much to be desired by later preservationists. Fragments were unceremoniously stuffed into soap containers and cigarette boxes. Separated sections were connected together with tape, while the 100-foot-long Karanis tax rolls were sliced up into smaller sections for easier storage.

But preservation has come a long way since the ’30s. Now the papyrus in the university collection is stored in a special preservation room where the temperature and humidity are tightly monitored, and fragments are pressed between slats of archival glass, when possible, or tucked carefully into acid- and adhesive-free paper containers.

Preservation techniques improved throughout the century, with some significant advancements developed at U-M in the 1990s including major improvements in joining and displaying papyrological fragments.

“Nothing that our conservators do can’t be reversed,” Haug says. “That’s basically the mantra. Don’t do anything that will damage the text, and don’t do anything that can’t be reversed. That was unfortunately what people often did in the past. They also used the Papyrus font on the labels,” Haug jokes, “which doesn’t look as good 20 years later.”

In classes and during tours of the archive, Haug always stresses the democratic spirit of the materials — that ancient history is about more than battles and political struggles and that the lives of everyday people are worth considering and celebrating. 

“I want people who come to the archive to consider the idea that the story of the ancient world is not just one of the people up at the top of the social pyramid,” Haug says. “That ancient history is increasingly a story about the everyday lives of people living in multicultural, multilinguistic empires. I try to curate the classes and tours to the degree that I can to expose people to this idea of people from different areas speaking different languages, all trying to live together. These documents can create a bridge between the past and the present, to show how we did it then so we can consider more deeply what we’re doing now.”


Photography by Liz DeCamp
Release Date: 10/14/2019
Category: Faculty; Research
Tags: LSA; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Brian Short; Classical Studies; Elizabeth DeCamp; Greek; Papyrology