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.

At this point it may be worthwhile to explain just what is meant by the term papyrus, which is the source of our word paper. It has three common meanings. First, it is applied to the reed, Cyperus papyrus, native to the swamps of Egypt and the Sudan; secondly, to the paper made from the pith of this reed; and thirdly, to any bit of writing found on a piece of papyrus paper. Thus, a papyrus may be a single sheet or a fragment of one, a roll of sheets glued together, a book of leaves of papyrus paper, or the written content of any one of the above.

Paper was made from the papyrus plant as follows. Narrow strips were first cut from the pith of a reed of appropriate size. Three methods for cutting the papyrus pith have been postulated: the Ragab method, by which the pith is cut from one side only, the Corrado Bastile method, where cuts from all three sides are made, and finally the Hendricks method of unpeeling. These methods are illustrated below:

Then, while still fresh, a number of these strips of like length and width were laid parallel to each other, with slight overlaps, on a wet table to form a mat of the desired size. A second similar mat was laid above the first with the upper strips at right angles to the lower. The two layers were then bonded to each other and formed a single sheet.

After being dried and smoothed, the sheet was ready for use, and one could write on either or both sides of it. Prepared in this way and given proper protection from dampness and other destructive forces, papyri have lasted in excellent condition for hundreds of years, and in not a few cases for well over three thousand years. In Greek and Roman times the ink used for writing on papyrus was made from lamp-black, gum arabic and water; if red ink was desired, iron filings were added to its ingredients. Pens were hollow reeds. shaped and split like our quill pens.

From the third century B.C. papyrus became the chief writing material in the world of the Greeks and Romans. Its use declined in Europe after the Arab conquest of Egypt in A.D. 641, but persisted in the Near East for a long time. It was between the middle of the tenth and the middle of the eleventh century that its manufacture ceased for good, owing to over-exploitation of the papyrus beds and, more important, the competition of the cheaper rag paper introduced by the Arabs from the Far East. The ostraca, to which reference has been made above, are broken pieces of pottery used as a cheap form of writing material in the eastern Mediterranean area. For the most part, they comprise receipts and other short business documents, private letters, and memoranda of various sorts.

Although the use of papyrus for writing purposes was so widespread, it is only in Egypt that papyri have survived in great numbers. The dry climate and dry soil in Egypt above the Delta and outside the irrigated area have combined to protect from rotting not only the papyri carefully buried in tombs but also those which were abandoned in deserted towns and villages, whether in the buildings themselves or, as was more usual in courtyards and refuse heaps.



The Michigan Papyrus Collection is a monument to the vision, faith, and tireless energy of the late Professor Francis W. Kelsey, Chairman of the Department of Latin from 1889 to 1927, whose name has been most appropriately commemorated in the Francis W. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, situated on South State Street. In 1915, Professor Kelsey was in Italy for the settlement of the estate of Thomas Spencer Jerome, an alumnus of Michigan, whose bequest to his alma mater supports the lectureship that bears his name. There he met Dr. David L. Askren, a former American medical missionary in Egypt, then practicing in the Fayum, where he later rendered his service to the University's archaeological expedition to Karanis and Dime. Dr. Askren interested Professor Kelsey in the possibility of acquiring such papyri as he might be able to purchase from their discoverers or from local dealers in antiquities. But, owing to the fact that World War I was in progress, no definite arrangements could then be made. In 1916, Mr. Charles L. Freer, of Detroit, a great collector of Asiatic art, acting with the Morgan Library in New York, purchased by correspondence, from Maurice Nahman, a well known and very astute Cairene dealer in antiquities a papyrus codex or book of the Minor Prophets, together with a group of Coptic manuscripts, acquired by Dr. Askren in the Fayum. The University was concerned in this because Mr. Freer intended that his codex should be published by Professor H.A. Sanders, who already had edited Freer's parchment manuscript of the Gospels, acquired in 1906. But the prevailing war conditions prevented the delivery of the new purchases, which were placed in the custody of the American consul in Cairo. Professor Kelsey, however, continued his personal correspondence with Dr. Askren, and the latter kept buying small quantities of Greek and Coptic papyri, which Kelsey in turn hoped ultimately to be able to buy from him for the University Library.

It was not, however, until after the armistice of 1918 that Professor Kelsey could make definite plans for a personal visit to Egypt, in order to acquire what papyri were available and to make an on-the-spot investigation of the whole papyrus situation. But, in spite of the delay, he never lost confidence in the ultimate success of his project to make papyrus manuscripts available to American scholars, and energetically sought to secure cooperation both from within and without the University. the writer of this article well remembers being halted by him on the walk between Tappan and Alumni Memorial Halls and asked abruptly, "When I bring some papyri to the University, will you help to edit them out?" His enthusiasm compelled immediate consent. At long last, in February, 1920, Professor Kelsey arrived in Cairo on what may appropriately be called the First Near East Expedition of The University of Michigan. Associated with the University in this venture were the Morgan Library, the Freer Fund, and the University of Wisconsin. In Cairo, Professor Kelsey secured the codex of the Minor Prophets, which Freer had bought in 1916, and also bought what papyri Nahman and Askren had on hand. More important, however was his meeting with B. P. Grenfell of Queen's College, Oxford, then the leading British papyrologist, who many years before had unearthed large quantities of papyri in both the Fayum and the Nile Valley.

In Grenfell Professor Kelsey found a warm friend and an expert advisor. From him, Dr. Askren, and others he learned that the current supply of papyri was coming mainly from the ruins of ancient villages, which formed mounds of varying height on the borders of the cultivated land, especially in the Fayum. The debris of which these mounds were composed contained a considerable quantity of nitrogenous matter which made it valuable as an agricultural fertilizer. When Egypt was cut off from its normal supply of imported nitrates, owing to the war, the local cultivators began to exploit the mounds as a substitute, and they continued to do so after the war was over. As a result, these village sites were rapidly disappearing from the landscape. In the course of their digging, the peasants unearthed quantities of papyri, which they were supposed to turn over to the guards supplied by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities to supervise the digging. But usually they managed to conceal the bulk of their finds, divide them among themselves, and sell them to local dealers. The latter, in turn, generally tried to dispose of them at a profit in one of the larger towns, preferably in Cairo.


It was quite evident that under prevailing conditions the supply of papyri would rapidly be exhausted, and Professor Kelsey therefore determined to see to it that as many as possible were purchased by institutions, such as The University of Michigan, where they would receive proper physical care and be made available for scholarly interpretation. The papyri obtained during the winter and spring of 1920, apart from the Freer manuscript and the Coptic items acquired expressly for the Morgan Library, were sent to Oxford, where Grenfell generously had promised to identify and evaluate them, and to divide them in proportion to their respective contributions between the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan. Since Grenfell, in the meantime, had been stricken by the illness from which he never recovered, his colleague, Professor A. S. Hunt, made the division. And in October of the same year, Professor Kelsey brought back to Michigan the first group of papyri- six hundred seventeen numbered items.

In December, 1920, Professor Kelsey proposed to Mr. H. I. (now Sir Idris) Bell, curator of manuscripts at the British Museum, that his institution and the John Rylands Library in Manchester should join with the Universities of Michigan and Cornell in sending a representative to purchase papyri; meanwhile he urged Nahman and Askren to keep buying whatever they could, and promised to take all good material off their hands at a fair price. This proposal was carried out. With Michigan and the British Museum as a permanent nucleus, and with other institutions associated on a more temporary basis, a consortium was organized which practically cornered the papyrus market in Egypt for a number of years. Further, it obviated competitive bidding among its members and exercised a moderating influence up the price of the papyri currently offered for sale. The British Museum acted as the center for the evaluation of the annual purchases made by the consortium and for their pro rata distribution among its participants. This service was greatly appreciated here, for a large proportion of the papyri came to light in very bad shape &endash; wrinkled, twisted, tightly folded, and extremely brittle, this requiring careful smoothing and cleansing before they could be identified and appraised. At that time, neither Michigan nor the other American participants had on their staffs technicians available to do this work rapidly nor papyrologists sufficiently familiar with documentary papyri to evaluate them properly. It was only fair that, in return for such help, the Museum should have the privilege of selecting as its share of the annual acquisitions the papyri which best supplemented its existing collection.

From 1921 through 1926, the consortium bought heavily from Nahman and others in Egypt, much of the time having its own representative there to pass upon the material offered for sale and either bring or ship it to London. Sir E. A. Wallace Budge acted in this capacity in 1921, Professor Kelsey in May, 1924, the writer during the winter of 1924-25, Professor Kelsey again in 1925, and H. I. Bell in 1926. By the close of 1926, the stream of papyri coming from illicit sources had virtually dried up, and in 1928 the consortium ceased to operate.

The University, however, continued to buy select lots of papyri when they became available and funds were forthcoming. Moreover, from 1924 to 1933 it found a new source of papyri in its excavations at Karanis and Dime in the Fayum. This archaeological venture was also owing to the initiative of Professor Kelsey, who saw the importance of studying in a methodical manner all the material evidence that could be brought to light from the age which produced the papyri themselves. As was stated above, the papyri recovered in the course of these excavations were entrusted to the University by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities for study and publication and are subject to return when the work on them is completed.



The papyri that were bought in Egypt were permitted to leave the country by the authorities at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, according to the procedure which governed the exports of antiquities in general. In fact, particularly when the late C. C. Edgar was head of the Museum, its relations with the representatives of the consortium were very cordial. The Museum authorities were by no means adverse to having papyri acquired by foreign institutions where they would be in proper hands. For a time at least, when our representatives secured papyri in which the Museum was particularly interested, these were turned over to it at cost.

Although the idea of building up a papyrus collection at Michigan originated with Professor Kelsey and although he was responsible or the first steps taken to make this a reality, he by no means played a lone hand in achieving this goal. From the very beginning he sought the advice and cooperation of others who were interested in or might be affected by this undertaking. And he found enthusiastic support not only among members of the departments of Greek and Latin but also among administrative officers of the University. Foremost among the latter was the University Librarian, Dr. W. W. Bishop. Himself an expert palaeographer, Dr. Bishop was very eager to enlarge the Library's manuscript resources, and assumed responsibility for the housing and care of the papyri, as well as for providing in the Library a work room for those entrusted with their decipherment and publication. The proper care of the papyri presented and still presents a serious problem. They must be housed in an atmosphere which is sufficiently damp to prevent their embrittlement from dehydration, but of course not so moisture-laden as to cause molding or other deterioration from excessive moisture. Furthermore, because of their brittleness, they must be protected from too much handling. The best solution found so far has been to enclose each piece between two layers of glass, bound together at the edges, and a large number of our more valuable pieces have been treated in this way. Those pieces not preserved in this manner are stored individually in acid-free folders, and the entire collection is housed in a vault under controlled atmospheric conditions, imitating the environment in which they remained for so long.

As soon as a Near East Research Fund was created for the purchase of papyri and other manuscripts and the Near East project was expanded to include archaeological field work, an administrative unit was set up by the Regents of the University to supervise the use of the Fund and to control the disposition of whatever materials were acquired thereby. In view of the wide interest in the project in University circles, this was rather a large body. It was called the Advisory Committee on Near East Research and, as established in 1924, it comprised the President of the University, then Dr. Marion L. Burton, the Deans of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the Graduate School, the University Librarian, Professor Kelsey and the faculty members actively concerned with work on the papyri: Professors Bonner, Boak, Robbins, Sanders, and Winter. Other members of the faculty soon were added to the original group, largely because of their archaeological interests. thus, when Professor Kelsey died in 1927, there was a stable organization in existence which could plan for the enlargement and control of the papyrus collection. These responsibilities, by action of the Board of Regents, were entrusted, in April, 1928, to a smaller Directing Committee selected from the membership of the Advisory Committee. Three years later, The University of Michigan Institute of Archaeological Research supplanted the Advisory and Directing Committees. In 1941 the Institute in turn was replaced by the Research Committee for the Museum of Art and Archaeology, which functioned until the Museum of Archaeology was set up as an independent administrative unit in July, 1946. From that time the papyrus collection has been controlled by the University Librarian, aided by an advisory committee consisting of the Research Professor of Papyrology and one other member of the faculty of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, active in papyrological work.


Among American universities, Michigan is unique in having a Research Professorship of papyrology, a fact which bears testimony to the relative importance of our papyrological collection. In 1929 the Advisory Committee on Near East Research, desiring to expedite the task of papyrus publication, recommended the creation of a research assistantship in papyrology. In September of that year, the new position was filled by the appointment of Mr. H. C. Youtie, who had received his training under the distinguished French papyrologist, Paul Collart. His research assistantship gradually developed into the research professorship to which he was advanced in 1946. Needless to say, the establishment of this research position has contributed greatly to the University's steady output of papyrological publications.

In addition to the permanent research appointee, Michigan papyrological studies have profited from the contributions of other, temporary research assistants, as well as from graduate students working in the field.

It was no easy task to find the money required for the continuous purchase of papyri over a long term of years. In March, 1920, Professor Kelsey suggested to Dr. Bishop that a sum of from $8,000 to $10,000 be raised for this purpose, but it was some years before any such amount became available. The University's share of the expedition of 1920 was financed by an appropriation by the Board of Regents and contributions from the Humanistic and Biblical Research Funds, amounting in all to $5,750. Further regental appropriations of $2,000 and $2,500 were made in 1921 and 1922, respectively. These appropriations were supplemented generously in 1922 and 1923 by Mr. J. W. Anderson, a Detroit alumnus, who made gifts of $7,500 each year for the purchase of a special group of documentary papyri, in the name of the Law Class of 1890, of which he was a member. When Professor Kelsey entered on his agreement with Mr. Nahman to take each year whatever good papyri came into the dealer's hands, he made this commitment largely on faith, since he literally did not know where the necessary funds would come from. And it speaks volumes for the confidence which he was able to inspire in others, that Egyptian dealer sent his materials to London for evaluation and waited, albeit at times under voluble protest, until the money could be raised to complete the payments on them. From 1923 until 1932, however, owing to the establishment and maintenance of the Near East Research Fund through the generosity of Mr. Horace H. Rackham, of Detroit, the financial situation was much more favorable; one of the specific objectives of the Fund the acquisition of papyrus manuscripts. Since 1932, additions to the Collection have been relatively few and have been financed from special funds at the disposal of the University.


The Michigan papyrus collection contains many items of great interest not merely to students of ancient Egypt but also to those engaged in Biblical studies, ancient literature, ancient science, ancient law, and ancient economic history. To enumerate the important texts which belong to the University of Michigan papyrus collection is not an easy task. There are a considerable number of Biblical and other early Christian texts. Here the choice item consists of thirty leaves of a third-century manuscript book of the epistles of St. Paul. These were acquired, largely though the efforts of Dr. Askren, in the spring of 1932 at a cost of $7,500. At the same time the major part of this codex was purchased from another source by Mr. Chester Beatty, then of London, a great collector of manuscripts, who generously refrained from competing for the University's share of the work. The writer had the pleasure of completing the purchase of this treasure in Egypt and the responsibility of bringing it to Ann Arbor. [This manuscript has been published in A Third-Century Papyrus Codex of the Epistles of Paul by H. A. Sanders, Ann Arbor, Univ. of Mich. Press, 1935.]

Of the non-Biblical Christian papyri, the most important is a sixty-two-page fragment of a codex of The Shepherd of Hermas, an apocalyptic work written in the second century of our era. Containing more than a quarter of the original and dating from the third century, the University's manuscript is the oldest and by far the largest known papyrus copy of this text. [Campbell Bonner, A Papyrus Codex of the Shepherd of Hermas, Ann Arbor, Univ. of Mich. Press, 1934] Interesting as tangible evidence of the first great persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire are two papyri dating from A.D. 250. They are certificates of conformity to pagan worship issued to certain residents of the Egyptian village of Theadelphia in accordance with the requirement that all persons in the empire should participate in the public cults. [P. Mich. III, Miscellaneous Papyri, Nos. 157, 158, Ann Arbor, Univ. of Mich. Press, 1936] The fragments of Greek literary texts in the Collection are not of outstanding significance, but they do include several Homeric texts of fair length. One fragment of the Iliad from Karanis was discovered lying just in front of an oven in a bakery, apparently ready to be used in starting a fire, when for some reason or other it was overlooked and became buried in sand.

Among the mathematical papyri is a lengthy table of fractions and a text containing a series of practical problems in arithmetic. A twenty-two-column astrological treatise by an unknown author, dating from the second century, illustrates the strange combination of exact astronomical calculations and illogical assumptions which characterize this pseudo-science. [These texts were edited by F. E. Robbins in P. Mich. III, Nos. 145, 146, 149.]

The collection contains as well several early literary fragments of the Homeric epics, little-known works of Greek dramatic writers like Aristophanes, Euripides and Menander, and fragments of known works of other Greek writers like Xenophon, Demosthenes, Isocrates, and Aristotle. These surviving fragments suggest which works were most popular among ancient readers; and because they sometimes differ in detail from the versions we have today, classicists can improve the accuracy of works that became garbled as they were transmitted through the centuries.

The documentary papyri and private letters in the Collection throw light upon nearly all phases of public and private life in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt. From the Greek or Ptolemaic period there is a group of one hundred and twenty letters and accounts, once part of the business records of a Greek immigrant to Egypt from Asia Minor, named Zenon. Zenon rose to be a business manager for Apollonios, the finance minister of Egypt under Ptolemy II, from 262 to 247 B.C. Although the Michigan Zenon Papyri probably comprise less than one-tenth of the total number now in possession of various museums and libraries, they are a representative lot and contribute materially to our knowledge of the economic history of Egypt in Ptolemaic times. [C. C. Edgar, P. Mich. I, Zenon Papyri, 1931.]

To the early Roman period belongs an important group of documents from the village of Tebtunis in the Fayum. These are the legal papyri acquired through the generosity of Mr. J. W. Anderson in 1922 and 1923. They date from the reigns of the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero, and formed part of the files of the public record office of Tebtunis and its subsidiary community, Kerkesouche Orous. Not only do these texts illustrate in great detail the operation of a village record office but they also give a general picture of the economic life of the villagers and contain examples of almost all of the types of written contracts employed in contemporary business transactions. [A. E. R. Boak, P. Mich. II, Papyri from Tebtunis, Pt. I, Ann Arbor, 1933; E. M. Husselman, A. E. R. Boak, W. F. Edgerton, P. Mich. V, Papyri from Tebtunis, Pt. II, Ann Arbor, 1944.] The prize item in this group (inventory number 622) is a roll seven feet ten inches long and about twelve inches wide. On one side it records the documents, two hundred and forty-seen in all, registered at the record office for a period of four months from April 28 to August 28, A.D. 42. On the other it gives summaries of fifty of these contracts, of which the most interesting are so-called alimentary contracts that is, property settlements incident to marriages.

It is fitting to close this account of the Michigan papyrus collection with a reference to its most impressive items. These are two tax rolls from Karanis, the one measuring about one hundred and seven feet in length and the other more than sixty feet when acquired. They have been cut into pieces of manageable length to avoid breaking from unrolling and re-rolling while under study. They were bought from Mr. Nahman in the spring of 1925 at a cost of $10,000. These rolls, containing lists of payers and payments of head taxes collected in the village of Karanis in the years A.D. 171-173, are by far the most complete records of this type so far discovered in Egypt. [H. C. Youtie, P. Mich. IV, Pt. I, Tax rolls from Karanis, Ann Arbor, 1936 and H. C. Youtie and O. M. Pearl, id., Pt. II, Ann Arbor, 1939.]

All these papyrus documents provide a unique insight into the ancient world, the social structure of ancient life in general and in detail. The contribution of the papyrus collection has been very important in the understanding of the history of Egypt under Greek and Roman rule, the structure of the society from the Ptolemaic to the Byzantine period, the administration, the personal religious beliefs of individuals, the official religions and their dogmatic clashes, the history of ancient scholarship, the schools, higher education and changes in literary taste over the periods.

Furthermore, scholars often find fragments from literary works that have been entirely or partially lost. Some religious documents illuminate pagan beliefs and practices, while others shed new light on the status of Jews and Christians in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Among the most intriguing texts to have been unearthed are passages from sorcerers' handbooks that disclose magic spells and give instructions on their proper use. Because the traditions described in the magical papyri were inextricably bound with religion, these texts have revolutionized our understanding of the Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Near Eastern religions, including Judaism and early Christianity.