Ancient Egyptian papyrus documents on Net

December 14, 1994

ANN ARBOR— A sample of the University of Michigan’s papyrus documents containing firsthand accounts of daily life in Ancient Egypt are 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 other similar software. The electronic address is:

Traianos Gagos, curator of the U-M’s papyrus collection, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, continues to scan pieces of the collection, which totals 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 said of the U-M collection. ” This was pop culture that we have put into academic categories. ”

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

Papyrus, used much as we use paper today, was often recycled, ancient Egyptian fashion. ” First they wrote with the fibers,” Gagos said, ” then they would turn it upside down and write again. ” 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 said. ” After all, it took 40 years to publish (translate) the Dead Sea Scrolls. ”

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

The U-M papyrus collection is not just the largest in the Western Hemisphere, but is considered by scholars to be the most prestigious. U-M is the only university to have a professorship in papyrology, currently held by world renowned papyrologist Ludwig Koenen.