The University Record, February 6, 1995

Sample of U's papyrus documents on World Wide Web

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

A sample of the University's papyrus documents containing firsthand accounts of daily life in ancient Egypt is now available to scholars, students and armchair adventurers who travel the electronic World Wide Web.

The sample can be accessed with the program Mosaic or similar software. The electronic address is:

Traianos Gagos, curator of the largest papyrus collection in the Western Hemisphere, continues to scan pieces of the collection, which total more than 10,000, into the computer.

Ancient papyrus is rich in information about public and domestic life: gossip and juicy tidbits about family quarrels, exchanges between relatives, legal disputes, religious persecutions, business deals, and even attempts by jilted suitors to use witchcraft to attract a lover.

Contracts, legal petitions, business correspondence, bills, receipts, and wills all provide insights into ancient economies. Tax rolls, legal pronouncements, and official records and correspondence illustrate important functions of the governing classes. Census records, birth certificates, and those same tax rolls provide demographic information about countryside populations.

Some of the documents housed in the U-M collection are of religious value, illuminating pagan beliefs and practices and shedding new light on the status of Jews and Christians in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. The collection even includes passages from sorcerers' handbooks that reveal magic spells and give instructions on their proper use.

"This is all raw fact as opposed to fiction," Gagos says of the collection. "This was pop culture that we have put into academic categories."

Kept in what looks like a climate-controlled athletic locker room, the collection is preserved at a relative humidity of approximately 42 percent and a temperature near 65 degrees F, conditions that replicate those of being buried in the sands of Egypt, Gagos says.

Papyrus, used much as we use paper today, was often recycled, ancient Egyptian fashion. "First they wrote along the grain of the fibers," Gagos says, "then they would turn it over and write against the grain." Some examples of private letters in the collection even form their own envelopes, much like airmail stationery of today.

The process of deciphering the papyrus collection is "slow as a turtle," Gagos says. "After all, it took 40 years to publish [translate] the Dead Sea Scrolls."

The work of scanning the ancient papyrus into the computer also is slow. However, Gagos estimates that the U-M will have 2,800 images on the World Wide Web by 1998. By then, the images will be combined with catalog records that will give a full description in English of each piece. He also is optimistic that such a project will be funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities when the U-M, along with consortium members Duke and Columbia universities, apply for a grant in July.

Papyrologists from around the world who are skilled in the science of reading and translating these documents are still deciphering the U-M collection. Now they will be able to continue their work far from the Ann Arbor campus by tapping into U-M's holdings as well as those of Duke and Columbia.

The U-M papyrus collection is considered by scholars to be the most prestigious in the Western hemisphere. The U-M is the only university to have a professorship in papyrology, currently held by papyrologist Ludwig Koenen.