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Updated 1:00 PM June 24, 2003



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Papyrus online brings ancient scribes to the public

Modern information technology has spurred substantial new interest in one of the most ancient of communications media: papyrus. APIS, a “virtual library” of papyrological collections at, receives more than 100,000 hits a month, increasingly from non-specialists.

This leaf of papyrus is from the Epistles of St. Paul to the Ephesians, likely from the end of the second century or the first half of the third century A.D. It is written in Greek and was purchased by U-M in 1930. Written with dark brown ink, almost every letter is still legible because there was little rubbing of the surface over the years. (Photo courtesy U-M Papyrology Collection)

U-M, as the lead institution on APIS (Advanced Papyrological Information System) since 2000, recently received a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to assure the continuation and expansion of the project, which began in 1996. It followed on the success of a digitization project by U-M from 1991-95 to make its collection available on the Web.

APIS makes it possible for viewers to explore digital images of ancient papyrus and examine detailed library catalog records about the material. The APIS database contains more than 20,000 records, about 3,400 of them from the U-M collection.

“APIS has two main goals,” says Traianos Gagos, associate professor of Greek and papyrology and president of the American Society of Papyrologists. “The first is to transform instruction and research in papyrology, and the second is to make papyrological material readily accessible to non-specialists. The latter, in fact, is becoming its most central outcome.”

Papyrology is the study of ancient Egyptian texts written in ink on a variety of surfaces, including pieces of broken pots, wooden and wax tablets, parchment, lead and fabric, but primarily on papyrus. Though papyri have been found in Italy, Palestine, Syria, Israel, Greece and Jordan, the bulk of the papyri in various collections around the world comes from Egypt, where it survived in the ruins and trash piles of ancient towns.

Individual institutions, as forerunners of APIS, attracted great interest from schools and the general public, Gagos says. But the APIS system makes the papyrological materials more user-friendly. While skilled papyrologists continue to use the APIS collections, Gagos says there has been a tremendous new interest from a wide spectrum of historians in using APIS data for their research.

“Teachers and instructors at all levels of education use our sites,” Gagos says. “Very often they send us feedback through e-mail. More often they visit our collections with their students to view the original manuscripts.” The interest sparked by the APIS and U-M online presentations results in many more visits to the collection, Gagos says. He notes that U-M gives tours of its papyrus collection to a combined audience of about 2,000 students and members of the general public each year.

“In the era before the Internet,” Gagos says, “we had to reach out to let people know what we have in our collection. Now people find us out on their own. APIS gets more than 100,000 hits a month.”

With more than 10,000 individual papyrus fragments, U-M is home to one of the largest collections in the world. The collection’s home page provides the public access to U-M’s collection as well as to many other papyrological resources, including APIS.

Using the U-M papyrology collection, William Johnson of the University of Cincinnati has mounted a Web site that offers the sounds of ancient instrumental music as transcribed from the U-M collection. Visit and look under “What’s New.”

About 70 percent of the total papyrus collections in North America have been cataloged, scanned and entered into APIS. The remaining 30 percent is largely from the collection at U-M and Berkeley, which have the largest collections in the United States, Gagos says.

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