The University of Michigan’s Papyrology Collection is a fascinating hidden gem.
Housed on the 8th floor of the South Stacks of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, the Papyrology Collection contains 18,000 pieces of papyrus.
Estimated to be worth $100 million dollars, it’s the largest collection of papyri in North America and the 5th largest in the world.
I’m standing in 807 Hatcher with the head archivist, Brendan Haug. Also present is manager, Monica Tsuneishi. Brendan has been archivist since 2013, taking the helm from a position started by Traianos Gagos, who was the first archivist in 1991.
This 8th floor hidden perch offers a spectacular vantage of campus as well. There’s a clear view of the Burton Bell Tower and Hill Auditorium to the north and a stunning panorama to the south, which includes the Big House and the Law Building.
Brendan and I are sitting in a reference library next door to a chilled room full of 3,000+ year old treasures in the form of papyri (pap-eye-ree; the plural of papyrus), that great preserver of everyday writing from the ancient world.
U of M’s papyrus (pronounced pap-uh-russ) is written in Ancient Greek, Ancient Egyptian: Hieroglyphs, Hieratic (cursive hieroglyphs), Demotic (a still-later stage of Egyptian), Latin, Coptic (Egyptian language written in Greek characters with a few additional symbols), Arabic and Hebrew.
Most of the papyri here range in size of fragments from pinky-nail size to full document size.
Papyrology is the study of everyday writing on papyrus and other surfaces like broken pieces of pottery (ostraca), wooden tablets, and stone.
Thanks to the dry Egyptian climate, these objects were preserved for centuries, giving Michigan plenty to study. The goal of papyrologists is to produce complete transcriptions of ancient papyri, thus, bringing long dormant documents back to life.
The work of papyrology can also be incredibly frustrating, since many of those teasing half-there scraps of papyri are damaged beyond translation.
To give you an example of the manifold difficulties of papyrology, only about 5% of Michigan’s Papyrology Collection has been studied, accurately translated and published academically. The rest sit there, waiting to be explored.
Brendan explains more about the Collection
“Papyrus was used from the fourth millennium BC to around 1000 AD. It lasted 4,000 years, until being phased out by parchment and paper. Papyrology, the study of handwritten texts on papyrus and other writing surfaces, is a specialized sub-discipline within Classical Studies.”
“The University of Michigan’s Papyrology Collection was founded in 1920 by Francis Willey Kelsey. He was a Latin professor and polymath, interested in everything from music to archaeology. Because Ann Arbor was so far from the Mediterranean, Kelsey wanted to bring back antiquities for students at his Midwestern public university to study.”
“Although Kelsey died in 1927, there was still a great deal of money available during this period, particularly before the Stock Market Crash of 1929, so we were able to continue acquiring papyri until the 1940’s. Also, because more people were exposed to Greek, Latin, and the Classics in school during this period, and there was rather more popular interest in the recovery of ancient texts on papyri than there is today. If you’re interested in Michigan’s history of antiquities collection and archaeology, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology here on campus is a great place to visit.”
“All of Michigan’s papyrus came from Egypt and our Papyrus Collection began with the purchase of 534 papyri, which was curated by Kelsey himself. After that, U of M continued to purchase texts on the Egyptian antiquities market, many from the famed Egyptian antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman.”
“Since dealers never kept accurate records of where they acquired their papyri, we rarely if ever, have good provenance for texts acquired on the antiquities market. Controlling the circumstances of recovery is therefore extremely important.”
“With this in mind, Michigan obtained permission from the Egyptian government to excavate the ancient Graeco-Roman village of Karanis for eleven seasons, from 1924-1935. Located in Middle Egypt on the northeastern margins of the Fayyum, Karanis is known for producing mass quantities of Graeco-Roman antiquities, which offer great insight into everyday life in a country village.”
“The Fayyum was at that time already well-known to antiquities dealers and European academic institutions as major source of papyri. In fact, a major find of papyri from the region’s central capital city had been dispersed to Paris, Berlin, and Vienna in 1887-88. So, we knew that excavation in the Fayyum was likely to be very fruitful. And it turned out to be even more productive than we could have imagined.”
“Over 11 seasons, we acquired thousands of papyri and other artifacts, which we split with the Egyptian government. Fortunately, the desert margins of the Fayyum, where Karanis is located, are hyper-arid, so perishable organic material like papyri are well-preserved in an almost laboratory-perfect environment. If you visit the Kelsey museum, you’ll see that they have everything from wooden artifacts to foodstuffs, perfectly preserved!”
“As for the papyri, Karanis gave us many fragments of Greek literature, including pieces of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony. It also gave us thousands of documents of great significance, such as the Karanis Tax Rolls from 171-175 AD, which allow us to reconstruct the population and demographics of the village during these years.”
“We also have a great many papyri from elsewhere in the Fayyum, including about 150 papyri from the Archive of Zenon, which is largest ancient archive to survive. Zenon was a Greek functionary in Egypt during the early Ptolemaic period (3rd century BC) and the papyri provides us with considerable insight into a period during which Greeks were still consolidating their power over Egypt.”
“But we don’t just have texts on papyri. We also have a great many parchment fragments, such as a piece of a codex of Demosthenes, the from 4th century BC Athenian orator, along with a great many ostraca, pottery sherds that people used for quick notes or short texts like receipts.”
“In 1972, Cornell University also donated all of their papyri to U of M, which had better facilities for the continued care and storage of such fragile material. So really, we have just a major collection, maybe 18,000 fragments. Let’s go take a look at some of this stuff.”
The Environmental Room
“This room was specially designed in 1993 by Maria Grandinette and since it’s full of organic material, the stability of temperature and humidity is the most important thing, so we keep it at a cool 65 degrees F and about 45% humidity.”
“The majority of the papyri are stored in acid-free archival folders but we do have a few hundred “glazed” papyri, texts that have been put between two archival glass panes.”
“The great thing about this documentation is that it puts you in contact with ancient people. Although ancient people were in many ways very different from us, they are identical to us in the most important and fundamental ways.”
“For instance, we have two letters on papyrus written in Italy by a young man and sent back to his mother in Karanis. He had joined the Roman military fleet and was very far from home so, of course, he wrote to let his mother know where he was and that he was safe and well. What could be more relatable? Still, papyri like these can be a tease, revealing tiny, brief glimpses of the past and leaving us wanting more. But usually we can never know more, as in the case of this mother and her son. These two short letters are all we have.”
“But despite this shortcoming, we still have all sorts of material here: the tax rolls from Karanis, papyri from the Tebtunis notary office in the south of the Fayyum, a birth certificate for a young Roman-citizen girl from 190’s AD Alexandria, a drawer full of wooden mummy tags in Greek and Egyptian.”
“We also have fragments of a book-binding where discarded papyrus was used to stiffen the covers, a large fragment of book 18 of the Iliad, almost anything you could imagine. It’s just so rich that you are constantly seeing something that you could spend hours investigating and only just begin to understand fully.”
“Our oldest piece is in fact a fragment from the Egyptian Book of the Dead from the 11th Century BC. It was purchased in 1925 in Egypt. The papyrus came from the tomb of a woman who is referred to as a Chantress of Amun. She was a temple singer and you can see her making an offering to a hawk-headed god named Re-Harakhte (pronounced ray ha-rock-tey) in the illustration on the papyrus.”
“Basically, the text is a collection of magic spells to ensure that the deceased person’s soul survives the underworld. There are hieroglyphs on the right and hieratic on the left. Some of the sentences are, “Thoth has come, fully equipped with magic” and “who gave jackals to those who are in the watery abyss.” It’s a neat piece and, in fact, it’s still not published since the surviving bottom portion of the fragment isn’t here but in Germany.”
“By far, however, our most popular papyri are the 30 leaves, i.e. 60 pages, of one of the earliest known copies of The Epistles of Saint Paul. Dating anywhere from the late 2nd-early 4th century AD, they’re written in Greek on papyrus.”
“Known as P46 to New Testament scholars, the pages were part of a large collection of early Biblical manuscripts, most of which were purchased by the businessman and antiquities collector, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty.”
“Another 56 leaves of this book survived and they are now in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland. Beatty bought them in 1930, U of M bought some in 1932 and two years later, Beatty purchased the rest.”
What is Papyrus?
Papyrus, which is a sedge, grows in Egypt and Sicily, however papyrus plants grew predominantly in marshlands along the Nile River, which is why Ancient Egypt had a veritable monopoly on papyrus production.
Papyrus plants can reach 15 feet tall. To make papyrus sheets for writing, you strip the green husk from the stems and then carefully cut the white pithy interior of the stem into thin strips. You then soak the strips in water for a time and afterwards line the strips up side by side vertically to form one layer, then you create another layer on top with strips running horizontally.
You then use either a mallet or, these days, a hand-cranked press, to smash the layers together and expel the water. The sheets are then and dried. In antiquity, these sheets could then be used singly or glued together to form a long roll. These rolls could be of any length you wanted.
Papyrus was an extremely valuable export commodity, especially for the Roman Empire. Papyrus was also used as cartonnage filler for mummy cases, those form-fitting cases which held mummies inside their sarcophagi.
Water and humidity are the enemies of papyri. Modern paper comes from wood pulp from ground up pine trees and has the same enemies.
To write on papyrus, the Egyptians would most commonly use either a rush pen or a Greek reed pen known as a kalamos. The ink was a mix of lampblack (fine charcoal soot from burning oil in lamps), gum from the acacia tree (gum Arabic) and water, somewhat similar to modern India ink.
How old are you?
Okay, now subtract your age from 4,500. Odds are, you’re probably somewhere in the 4420-4485 range. The oldest known papyrus, fragile yes but inexplicably resilient and durable enough to survive, is about that old.
Cool! What does that mean? It means that most papyrus pre-dates the Julian (46 BC) and Gregorian (1582 AD) calendars. Zero became a number around 3 BC in Mesopotamia. That’s right, papyrus predates the number zero by about 3,000 years! Mind = Blown. Canite Sapiunt.
Fast-forward to 4,500 years from now. Year 6,500 AD. Space archaeologists and paper-ologists revisit the old planet Earth to do some digging and uncover a 5,500-mile-long paper artifact. Upon closer inspection it turns out to be an insanely long CVS Pharmacy receipt from the year 2020 AD!
This is what they would be doing… if it were written on papyrus. CVS receipts long enough to wrap a mummy in will not be around in 6500 AD. However, papyrus from Ancient Egypt will most likely still be around.
“In 1798 when Napoleon invaded Egypt, the country was still terra incognita to Europeans. He brought scientists and engineers on his expedition to learn about Ancient Egypt. Through their scientific surveys they created The Description of Egypt (23-36 volumes), which comprises the foundation of Egyptology, the study of Pharaonic Egypt.”
“Thus, Western political conquest of Egypt opened the country to international study. In 1882, the British took over and started the Egypt Exploration Fund. In 1922, Egypt was made “independent” by the Brits but they still controlled the government.”
“That same year, 1922, amateur archaeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb at a time when Egypt was beginning to be fed up with Western domination. King Tut’s Tomb was of a quality and quantity unseen before.”
“In response to popular pressure, the French scholars in charge of the Antiquities Service did not allow Carter to take any of Tut’s treasures out of Egypt. The discovery captured the world’s imagination. This sort of grand, romantic, Egyptomania gripped the entire world, including the Egyptians themselves. Art Deco design also started incorporating Egyptological elements.”
“After that, it became harder to get antiquities out of Egypt and other countries. The 1920’s-30’s was the last major era for getting stuff out of the country. This question started being asked heavily: To whom does this belong?”
“We owe the survival of documents to climate. Alexandria is on the Mediterranean Coast, it’s wet, eroding, and a lot of ancient Alexandria is actually today underwater. Regarding the big Library of Alexandria, we don’t know the size of the collection, how they were stored, etc. We are therefore dealing with the “survival of the least fit,” as the papyrologist Roger Bagnall has said. ”
“That is, we get the overwhelming majority of our papyri from small sites that were on the very edges of Egypt’s cultivated land, right along the margins of the desert. So, the Library of Alexandria was the literary and cultural center of the country and its contents tell us a lot of information about their culture, it would be a time-machine. There are no more ancient libraries to discover, sadly.”
“There’s not as much interchange between Papyrologists and Egyptologists as there could be. The disciplinary divides that exist are linguistic. Knowing all the ancient languages, knowing 8,000 years of history, etc, it’s just not possible, so you inevitably have to divide up the discipline. Languages alone, you must have expertise in Egyptian (hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic, Coptic), Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Arabic, etc, it’s too much for any one person to master in a lifetime.”
Biography of Brendan Haug
“My academic interests include the environmental history of Graeco-Roman Egypt, the history of Egyptology and Egypt during the European colonial period. I work largely in Greek and Arabic although I have some training in Coptic.”
“I graduated from the University of Washington in 2004 with a B.A. in Classics and the University of California-Berkeley in 2012 with a PhD in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology.”
“Berkeley has the other large papyrus collection in the United States, the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri at the Bancroft Library, which is where I did my grad work. Overall, U of M has a more diverse collection than Berkeley, whose papyri largely come from a single site.”
“It was by accident really that I became a papyrologist. I was majoring in Classical Studies and doing my undergrad work at Seattle, studying Greek and Latin. One of my history instructors was going to teach a grad seminar on the Hellenistic World and she invited me to join it. She assigned each student a region to research for the semester and I was given Egypt. I ended up sticking with it, pursuing an honors major, and wrote an honors thesis on certain aspects of Ptolemaic Egypt.”
“After that I got into Berkeley (barely) and began to work at their papyrus collection. The director, Prof. Todd Hickey, needed a student assistant and I was hired on and ended up working there for eight years.”
“Over time, I evolved more into an environmental historian, not a pure papyrologist. Specifically, I’m interested in the human-nature interactions in rural Egypt from the Hellenistic to the early Islamic periods.”
“The world’s largest collection of papyri has to be the 500,000 fragments from the Egypt Exploration Society. It’s housed at Oxford University in the Sackler Library.”
“The papyri came from the city of Oxyrhynchus (oxy-rink-us) in Egypt, which has produced the greatest number of surviving papyri of the Roman period.”
Brendan’s Final Thoughts
“There’s still a small black market for papyrus but it’s far harder to create monetary values for it because antiquities smuggling is easier to track now. Hobby Lobby, for example, was recently caught importing cuneiform tablets, which they labeled ‘roofing tiles.’”
“Every once in a while, something incredible pops up on Sotheby’s or somewhere but it’s fairly rare. Nowadays, you must have a permit to dig in Egypt, nothing is expatriated and anything you find goes to the government.”
“The Classical world in general is not as big a part of the mental landscape as it used to be when it was a part of every educated person’s schooling. The thrill of the hunt and musing on what treasures are potentially buried in unexcavated urban centers is still fun though.”
“The ultimate goal of papyrology is publishing texts in an effort to reconstruct the culture and society of ancient civilizations, slowly refining our assumptions and arguments as more and more evidence accumulates. The difficulty is simply that there are so, so many documents out there, most of which are very fragmentary. Therefore, it might literally take until the year 4,000 AD for us to publish every papyrus in all the world’s major collections, that’s how slow and difficult it is.”
“Much of what we do these days is online, thanks to emerging digital technology. In 1996, our archivist Traianos Gagos helped create APIS, the Advanced Papyrological Information System, a digital catalog where all images of our photographed papyri are open-access to anyone in the world, it’s a tremendous resource.”
“Beyond that, I recommend that you come up to 807 Hatcher and visit us in-person to see the collection. We’re in the South Stacks, which is a sort of book storage and study space area. I also recommend checking out the 6th floor Special Collections Reading Room while you’re here.”
University of Michigan Papyrology Collection
U-M Papyrology Collection APIS (Advanced Papyrological Information System)
Top 20 Most Impressive Ancient Manuscript Collections
LHPC (directory of over 3,000 known papyrus collections worldwide; around 230 are in the USA)
Incomplete Timeline of Papyrus, Papyrology & Allied Interests
Compiled by Place from a variety of sources
Egypt (332 BCE) Alexander the Great conquers Egypt. Koine Greek becomes the official language of Egyptian power.
World (4000 BC) Clay tablets are all the rage.
Abydos, Egypt (3400 BC) The earliest known Egyptian hieroglyphs date back this far.
World (3000 BC-1000 AD) Papyrus is created in Egypt and replaces clay tablets. Papyrus lasts 4000 years until being phased out by parchment paper.
Egypt (3000 BC) Egyptians invent papyrus. Papyrus proves far more portable than heavy clay tablets, which had been the primary writing surface prior to papyrus.
Egypt (2562 BC) The Diary of Merer is the world’s oldest surviving writing on paper. Found by Pierre Tallet in 2013 AD. According to the Diaries, Merer worked for Pharaoh Khufu as head of transportation of the massive blocks of white tura limestone for Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza. Merer was also getting copper at Wadi-el-Jarf. His diary also contains the first known spreadsheet.
Egypt (2500 BC) Carrier pigeons carry messages written on scraps of papyrus.
Mesopotamia (Iraq) (2500 BC) Sumerian cuneiform clay tablets are used for record-keeping. An estimated 500,000 tablets survive today, mostly in broken chunks.
Egypt (1700 BC) Egyptian Book of the Dead spells and occult symbols and writing start popping up in tombs.
Thebes, Egypt (1633- 1552 BC) The sarcophagus of Queen Mentuhotep features some of the earliest known examples of the Book of the Dead.
Egypt (1550 BC) Copies of the Book of the Dead start being written and passed around. The Book of Coming Forth By Day.
Mount Sinai, Egypt (1200 BC) Moses atop Mount Sinai. The Torah is copied by Moses onto a papyrus scroll.
Athens, Greece (399 BC) Socrates says papyrus scrolls are for sale everywhere in the local market, the Agora of Athens, their central public Forum.
Alexandria, Egypt (300 BC-48 BC) Ptolemy I Soter founds the legendary Library of Alexandria, the most important library of the ancient world. The library contains 500,000-1 million scrolls of papyrus. The library’s main mission was to collect a copy of every book in the world. Any works not written in Greek are translated.
Alexandria, Egypt (284 BC) Zenodotus of Ephesus is the first recorded librarian of Alexandria. He developed an organizational system of arranging books by subject matter, then organized alphabetically by the author’s name. Some of his compiled glossaries were found during the excavation of Oxyrhynchus.
Alexandria, Egypt (246 BC-222 BC) Sometime during this timeframe, Ptolemy III builds the Serapeum Library of Alexandria. An offshoot branch of the main library, the Serapeum contained around 50,000 papyrus scrolls.
Alexandria, Egypt (245 BC) Greek scholar Callimachus of Cyrene creates the world’s first library catalog at the Library of Alexandria. The cataloging system of Callimachus was based on alphabetical subject classification and his system was so effective that it was copied throughout the entire Roman Empire. His famous 120-volume Pinakes (Greek for “Tables”) was a master list of information on the books at the Library of Alexandria.
Rome, Italy (240 BC) Livius Andronicus pens the first known literary works written in Latin when he writes his two stage plays.
Pergamum, Turkey (197-159 BC) Eumenes II expands the Library of Pergamum, one of the top libraries of the ancient world. Eumenes also invents parchment paper as a replacement for hard-to-obtain papyrus.
Pergamon, Turkey (150 BC) Crates of Mallus, scholar of the Library of Pergamum, creates the first-ever globe representing Earth.
Greece (146 BC) Roman takeover of Greece.
India (150 BC) Bookbinding originates here in the form of Sanskrit texts bound by sewing palm leaves with twine. Traveling Buddhist monks helped spread the technique.
Rome, Italy (131 BC) the world’s first newspaper, the Acta Diurna, is first chiseled on stone and displayed in the public Forum for the public to read. It is soon copied by slave-scribes onto papyrus and distributed around Rome.
Rome, Italy (87 BC) The Tabularium, official records office of ancient Rome, was housed inside the Roman Forum and consisted of thousands of papyri scrolls.
Athens, Greece (86 BC) Roman General Sulla is Master of Athens and manages to steal the remains of Aristotle’s famous personal library of hundreds of papyri scrolls.
Edfu, Egypt (57 BC) The Temple of Edfu is completed. Inside the temple are two rooms of books comprising a private temple library, called the House of Books of Horus. The Archive of the library is chiseled on the wall and you can still view it to this day!
Alexandria, Egypt (48 BC) Roman Emperor Julius Caesar invades Alexandria, his fire ships attack Egyptian ships. The fire spreads to the shore and the famous Royal Library of Alexandria is torched along with 500,000 papyrus scrolls. The Ptolemies built the Library in 300 BC.
Rome, Italy (46 BC) Julius Caesar implements the Julian Calendar.
Rome, Italy (39 BC) Rome’s first public library is built atop Aventine Hill by Gaius Asinius Pollio inside the Atrium Libertatis. Pollio also organized literary clubs where authors read their works aloud. Virgil would read his Aenied here.
Egypt (30 BC-640 AD) Romans rule Egypt. Thus, most legal documents from that period are written in Latin.
Mesopotamia (Iraq) (3 BC) Zero becomes a number.
Rome, Italy (64 AD) The Great Fire of Rome includes the destruction of the Palatine Library inside the Temple of Apollo.
Rome, Italy (77 AD) Pliny the Elder publishes instructions on how to make papyrus paper.
Herculaneum, Italy (79 AD) Mount Vesuvius erupts. It’s path of destruction incudes the Villa of the Papyri, which was the luxury estate of Lucius Calpurnius Piso (Julius Caesar’s father-in-law) and contained a world-class library of 2,000 or so papyrus scrolls. The papyrus scrolls were carbonized in the eruption and discovered mostly intact in 1752. Some of the scrolls included those from philosophers Epicurus and Philodemus and were written in Greek. You can see them on display at the National Archeological Museum in Naples, Italy.
China (105 AD) Cai Lun invents paper.
World (2nd Century AD) Parchment begins eclipsing papyrus as the most popular paper of choice.
Rome, Italy (113 AD) Trajan opens the Ulpian Library around his famous column.
World (3rd century AD) The Codex becomes popular. A codex is pages of papyrus or parchment compiled into a book.
Tabennisi, Egypt (320 AD) Saint Pachomius establishes the first monastic lending library in Egypt, consisting of hundreds of scrolls of papyri.
Istanbul, Turkey (350 AD) Sometime hereabouts, the Imperial Library of Constantinople is built by Constantius II. He created a Scriptorium to preserve the ancient Greek classics, where an army of scribes transferred them from papyrus to parchment. The Library at one point contained 100,000 volumes. It was destroyed in 1204 AD during the Fourth Crusade. It was the last of the great libraries of antiquity.
Rome, Italy (388 AD) Saint Augustine confesses his love of papyrus over parchment.
Europe (4th -15th Centuries AD) Medieval European scribes write on parchment paper, not papyrus.
World (6th century AD) Papyrus rolls gradually vanish and codices become the main medium.
Squillace, Italy (538 AD) Cassiodorus, after succeeding Boethius, establishes the Vivarium Monastery library and scriptorium. Shortly afterwards, he moves to the walled city of Constantinople. Cassiodorus remains a lifelong believer in the supremacy of papyrus.
Seville, Spain (600 AD) the quill pen comes into vogue and its popularity spreads.
Egypt (639 AD) Egypt is conquered by the Arabs.
Talas River Valley, Kyrgyzstan (751 AD) Arabs capture Chinese paper-makers. They’re brought to Samarkand, Uzbekistan and begin teaching others.
Baghdad, Iraq (794 AD) Arab paper mills are built using the Chinese method of paper-making. In less than 300 years, Chinese paper totally eclipses papyrus throughout Arabia.
Vatican, Rome (1083 AD) the last papal bull written on papyrus. They are henceforth written on parchment.
Spain (1100’s AD) The secret art of paper-making finally reaches Europe.
Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico (1200 AD) The Dresden Codex and its fabulous Venus Tables is published. Consisting of 39 sheets (front and back), it is the oldest Mayan manuscript and was written on Mesoamerican bark paper (Amate). You can view it on display at the Saxon State Library in Dresden, Germany.
Runnymede, Surrey, England (1250 AD) The Magna Carta is written on sheepskin parchment.
Strasbourg, France (1440) Gutenberg invents the moveable type printing press, which quickly revolutionizes the world. His famous Gutenberg Bible is published in 1455 on vellum.
Italy (1490) Leonardo Da Vinci supposedly hunts for “rare” papyrus.
Europe (1582) The Gregorian Calendar is implemented.
England (1623) Shakespeare’s First Folio is published on rag paper.
Herculaneum, Italy (1752) Papyri is discovered in this south Italian city. They had been buried by the eruption of Vesuvius 79 BC.
Vatican, Rome, Italy (1755) Padre Antonio Piaggio, noted Vatican calligrapher, begins deciphering the charred papyri from Herculaneum.
World (1788) Papyrology as a discipline begins when Danish classicist Niels Iversen publishes a papyrus written in Greek, the Charta Borgiana (aka: the Schow Papyrus) from 193 BC detailing daily work in Faiyum, Egypt. The papyrus was a roll with 12 and ½ surviving columns. It was bought in 1778 near Memphis. The Papyrus is donated to Cardinal Stefano Borgia. You can view it on display at the Museuo Nazionale Archeologico in Naples, Italy.
Egypt (1798) Napoleon invades Egypt. Egyptology starts in the 1800’s after Napoleon’s information about the fascinations of Egypt spreads around the world.
Rosetta, Egypt (1799) The Rosetta Stone (created 196 BC) is discovered at Fort Julien in Rosetta, Egypt. In 1801, the British seize the stone and it’s now on display at the British Museum.
Luxor (1820) The Turin King List papyrus is purchased by Bernardino Drovetti. You can see it on display at the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy.
Thebes, Egypt (1822) Drovetti buys the Turin Papyrus Map of Egypt from 1160 BC, it’s the oldest surviving map of the ancient world. You can see it on display at the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy. Drovetti later dies in an insane asylum in Turin in 1852.
Egypt (1824) The Westcar Papyrus is purchased. Dating from somewhere in the 1800-1650 BC range, it contains five stories about magic at the Royal Court of Cheops and is often called ‘King Cheops & the Magicians’.
Berlin, Germany (1828) Germany establishes the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.
Halifax, Canada (1838) Newsprint (paper from wood pulp) is invented by Charles Fenerty.
London, England (1842) the Illustrated London News becomes the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine.
Germany (1842) German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius publishes a collection of ancient mortuary texts, which he calls Totenbuch (“The Book of the Dead”).
Karnak, Egypt (1843) Prisse d’Avennes rescues the Karnak Kings List, a list of 60 kings carved on tablets from 4,000 BC and a papyrus scroll from 1800 BC later named the Prisse Papyrus. Widely considered the oldest literary work on paper, it is 18 pages of The Maxims of Pthahhotep by the Grand Vizier Ptahhotep. You can see it on display at the Louve in Paris.
Cairo, Egypt (1851) French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette becomes famous for finding the Serapeum of Memphis. He then founded the Egyptian Department of Antiquities.
Nineveh, Iraq (1851) Sir Austen Layard discovers the ancient Royal Library of Ashurbanipal. This was the kings two-room private library inside the Palace of Ashurbanipal, which was built sometime 668-627 BC. It once contained some 30,000 cuneiform clay tablets, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. The library was noted for being the world’s first systematically organized reference collection. You can view several of these tablets at the British Museum.
Turin, Italy (1852) Drovetti dies in an insane asylum.
Cairo, Egypt (1858) Egypt’s Department of Antiquities is established by Frenchman Auguste Mariette. This department still exists today under the name Supreme Council of Antiquities.
Luxor, Egypt (1858) Alexander Henry Rhind purchases a 16-foot-long roll of papyrus, which comes to be known as the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. Written in Hieratic in 1550 BC, it’s the world’s best-known example of Ancient Egyptian mathematics.
Luxor, Egypt (1862) The Edwin Smith Papyrus is purchased. The contents prove that Egyptians invented medical surgery. You can view it on display at the New York Academy of Medicine.
Boston, Massachusetts (1863) Wood is pulped and turned into paper, creating the Boston Weekly Journal.
Kiman Faris, Faiyum, Egypt (1877) Peasants digging in ancient mounds find thousands of papyri. Called the ‘First Faiyum Find’, most are purchased in Cairo by Austrian dealer-collector, Theodor Graf. He sells them to Archduke Rainer in 1884. Rainer ends up donating the collection to the Austrian National Library.
Alexandria, Egypt (1880) Herbert Greenfield purchases the Greenfield Papyrus, an 121 foot long copy of the Book of the Dead and one of the best surviving examples of a funerary papyrus. Dating from 970 BC it was a funerary papyrus for Princess Neisitanebtashru. His wife Edith donated it to the British Museum, where you can see it on display.
Egypt (1881) Russian Egyptologist Golenischcheff purchases the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. It’s a papyrus dating from 2000-1710 BC and is possibly the oldest fantasy text ever written. You can see it on display at the Imperial Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Egypt (1882) British military occupation of Egypt. The Egypt Exploration Fund is created to fund excavations in the Nile Delta area.
Hawara, Egypt (1888) British Egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie, excavates the area and discovers a fabulous rolls of papyrus containing most of Homer’s The Iliad. Dated to 150 AD, this document is now called ‘The Hawara Homer‘ and is currently kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England.
Luxor, Egypt (1888) Wallis Budge swipes the Papyrus of Ani. Dating from 1250 BC, the 78-foot-long papyrus is from Theban royal scribe Ani, who was also governor of a large granary at Abydos and inventory tracker of temple property at Thebes. It is the world’s most complete surviving version of the Book of the Dead. You can view it on display at the British Museum in London.
Gurob, Faiyum, Egypt (1889-90) Whilst digging in the ancient Ptolemaic cemetery, Sir Flinders Petrie finds papyri written in Greek inside Ptolemaic tombs from 250 BC. The papyri includes Plato’s Phaedo and Homer’s Iliad. He finds mummies covered in cartonnage of demotic and Greek papyri.
World (1891) The “miracle year” for papyrologists in terms of papyri being translated and published. Poems of Herodas and Aristotle’s ‘Constitution of the Athenians’ are published from papyrus at the British Museum.
Thebes, Egypt (1892) Russian Egyptologist Golenischev purchases the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus from 1850 BC, Egypt’s oldest math text. You can view it on display at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia.
Abu Gorab, Egypt (1893) The Abusir Papyrus is purchased. Dating from 2500 BC, it is the largest and most important papyrus on Ancient Egyptian administration from the Old Kingdom.
Egypt (1890’s) Egyptomaniac Wallis ‘Budgie’ Budge acquires 47,000 artifacts from Egypt for the British Museum. “In doing so, he committed almost every crime of cultural thievery in the book,” says John Gaudet, “Budge left a record. He and possibly Napoleon had taken the largest number of items ever removed from Egypt.”
Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (1896) Two Brits, Grenfell (Egyptologist) and Hunt (papyrologist) find papyri, then Jan 13, 1897 they hit the mother lode while digging in rubbish mounds. They find a codex leaf, the Logia Iesu, containing the “sayings of Jesus” from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. The Egypt Exploration Fund sells it to the Bodelein Library. “The flow of papyri soon became a torrent,” said Grenfell. They dig until 1907. These excavations are the source of the world’s largest collection of papyri, including fragments from the Gospel of Thomas, Euclid’s Elements, plays of Menander, writings of Pindar, Sappho, Sophocles, the Apocalypse of Baruch, etc.
Egypt (1896) Wallis Budge acquires a 15ft long papyrus containing 20 poetic Odes of Bacchylides.
University Chicago (1898) Papyrology in the USA begins with Greek papyri from Egypt via Edgar J. Goodspeed who sells them to Chicago Egyptologist James H. Breasted. You can view them on display at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library.
Tebtunis, Faiyum, Egypt (1899-1900) The Tebtunis Papyri are found by Grenfell and Hunt in an expedition financed by Phoebe Apperson Hearst at the University of California-Berkeley. They find papyri from mummies and also crocodile mummies, including Sobek the ancient Egyptian crocodile god, also known as Soknebtunis (Lord of Tebtunis). You can view these at UCal-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.
World (1900) Papyrology finally becomes an accepted and respected discipline.
Susa, Iran (1901) The Code of Hammurabi is found. Dating from 1754 BC, it’s an ancient Babylonian code of law carved into a stone slab. You can view it on display at the Louvre in Paris.
Germany (1902-14) Germany creates the Deutsches Papyruskartell to purchase papyri from dealers in Egypt and sell to German institutions.
England (1908) Grenfell and Hunt produce the first volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri where they gave every papyrus a name and number.
Armann, Egypt (1912) The famous Nefertiti Bust is found by German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt inside the ancient workshop of sculptor Thutmose who created it in 1345 BC. It is now housed at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Borchardt also found the Timotheos Papyrus in a wooden sarcophagus at Abusir.
Faiyum, Egypt (1914) Archives of Zenon discovered. Some 2,000 papyri from 258 BC, detailing life in early Ptolemaic Egypt.
Egypt (1920) Oxford papyrologist Bernard Grenfell and University of Michigan scholar Francis Kelsey visit several archeological sites across Egypt.
Egypt (1922) Howard Carter discovers King Tuts Tomb.
Karanis, Egypt (1924-35) Francis Kelsey, University of Michigan Latin professor and philologist, starts excavating Karanis, Egypt. Kelsey dies in 1927 and the digging continues. Finds are sent back to U of M to Elinor Husselman, the curator of manuscripts and papyri.
Michigan (1927) The University of Michigan Department of Manuscripts and Papyrology is founded.
Brussels (1930) Papyrologists first assemble internationally for the first time.
Tebtunis, Egypt (1931 and 1934) Enormous amounts of papyri found during Italian excavations.
Saqqara, Egypt (1935) Walter Emert finds two blank yet fully intact rolls of papyrus in the Tomb of Hemaka. At 5,000 years old, they are verified as the most ancient paper ever found.
California (1938) the UC-Berkeley papyri collection starts.
Nag Hammadi, Egypt (1945) The Nag Hammadi codices on papyrus are found, 13 total, bound in leather.
Khirbet Qumran, Israel (1946-56) The Dead Sea Scrolls are found in 11 caves. 930 documents total: 800 written on parchment 130 written on papyrus. 590 documents alone are found in Cave Four. The stash was thought to be from the Essenes.
Nahal Hever, Judean Desert (1960-61) Archaeologist Yigael Yadin finds cave of letters in Judean desert from the survivors of the Bar Kockhba revolt, who hid here in 132 BC. The papyri are written in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic.
Derveni, Macedonia, Greece (1962) the only papyrus found in Greece is the Derveni Papyrus, which consists of 266 fragments of an ancient Macedonian papyrus from 340 BC and widely considered to be Europe’s oldest surviving manuscript.
Vatican, Rome (2006) The Bodmer Papyrus Codex (renamed the Hanna Papyrus) containing the Gospels of Luke and John (c. 175 AD) is donated to the Vatican by Frank Hanna. The papyrus was originally found in Dishna, Egypt and sold to Martin Bodmer Foundation, library of the famous collector, who had 150,000 works in Geneva, Switzerland in his private collection.
London (2011) Two heretofore unknown poems of the female Greek lyric poet Sappho are discovered on papyrus written in ancient Greek. Her poetry was once collected into 9 volumes at the Library of Alexandria but was lost to history.
Egypt (2013) Digging since 2011, Pierre Tallet finds 30 caves hidden in a limestone hill. It was a boat storage area 4,600 years ago. In 2013, he finds papyrus written in hieroglyphics and hieratic (ancient Egyptian cursive script). Turns out to be the world’s oldest known papyrus. Written by two Egyptians who helped build the Great Pyramid (Pharaoh Khufu’s tomb) at Giza. He found 30 papyri at the Red Sea port of Wadi-al-Jarf. The Diary of Merer (4500yrs old) are logbook-diaries, telling of his transporting limestone to Giza. They are now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Egypt (2019) The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities operates 72 antiquities warehouses in Egypt. Egypt recently announces they are imposing life imprisonment and millions in fines for antiquities smuggling.