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.”