Room 807 of the Graduate Library at the University of Michigan houses a very prestigious collection of ancient manuscripts. With over 12,000 papyri and hundreds of texts on ostraca (potsherds), wood, wax tablets, parchment, and lead, dating from around 1,000 BCE to 1,000 CE, this is the largest research and teaching collection of its kind in North America. Most of the papyri are in Greek (the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean after the conquests of Alexander the Great), but there are also many in Egyptian hieroglyphic, demotic, and Coptic, and some in Arabic and Latin.
The collection was founded in 1920 with papyri acquired both through purchases and in the pioneering University of Michigan scientific excavations at the ancient Egyptian town of Karanis (1924–1935). Its contents include fragments of works by classical authors, with rare texts of writers such as Aristophanes, Euripides, Menander, Callimachus, Dioscorides, and Seneca, and copies of known works by Homer, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Isocrates, Aristotle, and Euclid. Important religious papyri include 30 leaves from the earliest known copy of the biblical letters from Saint Paul to the early churches from the second century CE and one of the earliest copies of the Christian text "The Shepherd of Hermas." There are also magical texts, scientific writings (astronomy, mathematics, medicine) and rare examples of musical notation. Most of the papyri are public and private documents such as imperial decrees, administrative and taxation records, letters, accounts, wills, and marriage agreements.
The University of Michigan has long been recognized as an international leader in editing papyri texts and promoting interdisciplinarity. The rich evidence of the papyri from Karanis in combination with the artifacts found there provides a unique opportunity for the study of this ancient community across several disciplines.
The papyrus collection has also led the way in bringing the past into the future through digital technologies. Efforts in the 1990s to catalog and digitize the papyri at Michigan became the foundation for a national consortium project in 1996 known as the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS). The aim of APIS is to unify the collections of its now over 25 partners into a global virtual papyri library, freely accessible throughout the world. The project consists of cataloging, translating, conserving, and digitizing the original artifacts. Thousands of Michigan's papyri have been conserved and made available through the APIS project. Funded largely by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), APIS contains overall more than 25,000 records and 15,000 images.
The papyrus collection not only provides rich sources for study by advanced papyrologists and Egyptologists from around the world, but also serves as a teaching tool for undergraduate courses on Egypt and as a laboratory in training graduate students in the study, publication, and collection management of papyri. The collection has also engaged actively in outreach to students and teachers in K-12 education, in part through exhibits on its Web site. All of these efforts focus on how exposure to this collection can lead to a richer understanding of the ancient world.
Collection Profile: Traianos Gagos
Overview: Peggy Daub
Illustrations: Randal Stegmeyer