From Egypt to Ann Arbor: The Building of the Papyrus Collection

(Adapted from an article by Arthur E. R. Boak)

One of the great treasures of The University of Michigan Library, and one which, unfortunately, is not too well known to faculty, students, and alumni, is the collection of papyrus manuscripts which has added materially to the University's national and international reputation. The collection comprises about seven thousand catalogued items, many of which consist of two or more pieces of separate content contained in one folder, so that the actual number of papyri which have received or still require individual publication may be estimated at around ten thousand. Of these, some two thousand represent a loan for publication from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, as will be explained below, most of which have been returned to Cairo. The Michigan Collection, by far the largest in the United States, ranks among the great collections in the world, although it is not as large as those at Oxford, London, Vienna, and, of course Cairo. The importance of the collection is enhanced by the presence of the University's collection of ostraca, which is housed in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

In date the Michigan papyri range from the earlier part of the third century B.C. to the eighth century A.D. The great majority of them are written in Greek, but there are also considerable numbers in Latin, Coptic, Arabic, and even a few in Egyptian Demotic. They contain materials of all sorts: Biblical fragments, religious writings, public and private documents, private letters, astronomical, astrological, mathematical, and magical texts. No attempt has been made to acquire papyri dating from before the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., since their decipherment and interpretation form a branch of the science of Egyptology, which other institutions have been better equipped to pursue than our own whereas Michigan has been particularly well staffed for dealing with the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods of Egyptian history and civilization.

The study of the papyrus manuscripts from these later periods is called in a special sense papyrology, in contrast to Egyptology and papyrologists are those scholars trained in the difficult science of reading and translating these documents, which, in addition to missing crucial passages, words, or letters, and being written in a dead language, often feature unrefined penmanship and grammar.

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