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Paper trail

By Kevin Brown

In the second century C.E., only Apolinarius, a young Egyptian soldier stationed with the Roman fleet near Italy, and his mother, Taesis, knew of his letter back home. The son wrote his mother that everything was OK.

Today, Apolinarius’ letter is available to a worldwide 21st century audience, as the U-M Papyrology Collection, the largest in the United States and fifth largest in the world, is becoming more accessible. The collection includes items ranging from Apolinarius’ letter to one of the highlights of the collection — a second century copy of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

To make the collection more visible, the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library — home to the collection of well over 16,000 papyrus fragments — recently installed the Parsons Papyrology Exhibit Case. Housed in the library’s first floor Audubon Room, it serves as a permanent exhibit site for material from the Papyrology Collection.

The case is climate-controlled and equipped with special lighting, and circulates air to preserve displayed documents. Its purchase and installation was made possible by a bequest by the late Gardner and Ann Parsons. It guarantees that going forward, the Papyrology Collection will always have at least one piece of ancient papyrus on display for public viewing.

Meanwhile, the university continues to build a digital catalog of items from the collection — including Apolinarius’s letter home — for upload to the worldwide Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) online archive.

“There are many requests to see papyri,” explains Arthur Verhoogt (photo: above left), acting archivist of the collection and associate professor of papyrology and Greek, Department of Classical Studies. At least twice a week, Verhoogt says, visitors come to the collection hoping to see papyri, among them tourists or people interested in seeing ancient religious texts.

The collection got its start in the 1920s. That’s when Professor Francis Kelsey began building the collection by obtaining papyri from dealers in the Middle East. “Professor Kelsey felt that to really know the ancient world you can look at books, but you also need to look at what ancient people left behind,” Verhoogt says. The collection continued to grow after U-M formed a cartel with some other American universities and the British Museum, for the purpose of buying ancient papyrus documents.

By 1935 a U-M excavation at the ancient village of Karanis, Egypt, had turned up 4,000 papyri. “There’s works of literature, such as Homer’s epics, and there’s also day-to-day documents, including sale documents of houses, lease contracts for a cow, tax receipts and personal letters that people wrote — largely from the second through the fourth centuries of the Common Era,” Verhoogt says.

The current Hatcher Library exhibit “Sacred Hands,” which shares space with the Parsons Case in the library’s Audubon Room, also presents items from the Papyrology Collection, including St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. “It’s the oldest manuscript of the Letters of St. Paul in the world,” Verhoogt says.

The collection is used to support classroom instruction in several ways. Faculty members use papyri in graduate instruction in classics, history and Near Eastern studies. Papyri also are used in undergraduate education, from small seminars to large lecture classes. “For example, for the Great Books class, we provide examples of ancient books,” Verhoogt says. “We also have a number of students who work to read and interpret the papyrus documents, and others have been studying original excavation records from Karanis to better understand who lived in the houses that held papyri.”

Photo by Austin Thomason, U-M Photo Services.

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