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Updated 11:00 AM March 8, 2004
 

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Indiana Jones fan discovers 2,000-year-old papyrus in U-M library


It wasn't the subject that intrigued him at first. "The professor moved me, not the topic," says Rob Stephan, a junior.

Impressed with the presentation by Arthur Verhoogt—assistant professor of papyrology and Greek in the Department of Classical Studies—during freshman orientation, Stephan decided to fulfill his language requirements with ancient Greek. And that was just the beginning.
Rob Stephan displays some of the artifacts at the Kelsey Museum for which he was able to provide context through deciphering papyrus in the U-M collection housed in the Rackham Graduate Library. Those reading ancient papyrus often have only minimal clues to work with due to the deterioration of the material in its nearly 2,000 years of existence. U-M's papyrus collection provides insight into the ancient world and the social structure of ancient life. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

His interests expanded to life in ancient times in the Mideast and that, in turn, led to the discovery of more than a dozen unpublished papyrus texts stored long ago deep in a library on campus. Some contained surprising information about soldiers and daily life nearly 2,000 years ago.

Interest and enthusiasm for this time period grew quickly for this fan of archaeologist Indiana Jones, the adventurous movie character. Under the guidance of Verhoogt, Stephan put together a program of independent study that included working with artifacts at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University's papyrus collection housed in the Rackham Graduate Library.

He also started a job at the Kelsey, where he built display cases for the "Archaeologies of Childhood" and "Individual and Society in Ancient Egypt" exhibitions. Though he had no previous training or experience in construction, the Cincinnati native excelled.

Stephan found text at the Rackham library that explained some of the artifacts housed at Kelsey, a match that, until his efforts, had remained separated and unknown. The combined text and artifact enabled him to examine life in the small town of Karanis, Egypt, as it appeared nearly 2,000 years ago.

"The match Rob made is very important to the field," Verhoogt says, "because the archaeological information more or less adds a third dimension to the textual material. The texts are coming to life by putting them in their archaeological context again."

Stephan never will forget the experience.

"Getting the opportunity to work with these unparalleled resources and enthusiastic professors has not only helped in finding what I am passionate about," says Stephan, "but it has allowed me to work with that passion at a level I really never dreamed possible as an undergraduate."

Susan Alcock, professor of classical studies, took the plans for Stephan's project to the museum's board for approval of an exhibition. Stephan will show his findings in an upcoming Kelsey exhibition, "Digging Up a Story: The House of Claudius Tiberianus."

"I've found that if you're passionate about something, and willing to put in some hard work, the professors here are almost always willing to go out of their way to help you succeed," Stephan says. "The friendships I've made have been just as rewarding, if not more, than the research itself."

Stephan will cut one semester off his stay at U-M to graduate in December. He hopes to spend the winter term on an excavation in Abydos, Egypt, where assistant professor of Egyptology Janet Richards is the project director for a full-scale archaeological investigation of late Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom provincial mortuary landscape.

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