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Digging up a story

BY
BY NAILA MOREIRA
Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 17, 2003

A University undergraduate has unearthed a collection of
unpublished ancient Egyptian manuscripts forgotten among the musty
library shelves of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.

Mira Levitan
Papyrologist Arthur Verhoogt and LSA junior Rob Stephan look at a collection of papyrus at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. (JEFF LEHNERT/Daily)

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LSA junior Rob Stephan discovered more than a dozen unpublished
texts during an independent study with classical studies Prof.
Arthur Verhoogt. His find almost doubles the size of a previously
known and extensively studied archive of papyrus. An archive is all
the papyrus — hand-printed ancient documents on paper made
from reeds native to Egypt — found in a single house during
an archaeological excavation.

“Michigan has the biggest collection of papyrus in the
Western Hemisphere, so it’s very possible that they just got
overlooked somehow,” Stephan said. The University collection
contains more than 12,000 individual fragments of papyrus.

The new texts belong to an archive consisting mainly of personal
letters from a Roman soldier to a retired soldier, probably his
father, both of whom were stationed in Egypt during the Roman
occupation which dates back to 30 B.C.

Former University Prof. Francis Kelsey originally uncovered the
papyri during an excavation of the Egyptian town of Karanis in the
1920s and ’30s. He returned them to Michigan along with
artifacts now housed at Kelsey’s namesake, the
University’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Verhoogt and Stephan decided to re-examine the papyri in context
of the archaeological artifacts. “I wanted to look at the
papyrus and the artifacts that were brought back to try to find out
what life was like for the average Joe in Egyptian society,”
Stephan said.

While poring over records of the excavation at the Kelsey
Museum, Stephan realized that many of the manuscripts that had been
brought back did not have associated publication numbers.

“So we went to the vaults in the Papyrology Library and
there they were,” he said. “It’s really a thrill
to be one of the first people to read these texts in almost 2,000
years.”

Verhoogt dubbed their find an example of “museum
archaeology.”

“Instead of going to the field to start digging, you go to
the museum to start digging, and there’s a lot of nice stuff
to be discovered there as well,” he said.

“This is one of those wonderful experiences when you
actually have an undergraduate contributing to the progress of the
field,” Verhoogt added.

The new texts contain some surprising information about the
soldiers. One of the fragments, for example, is a copy of
Thucydides’ “The History of the Peloponnesian
War,” an ancient Greek classic still read today by students
in Great Books classes. The fragment, dating from the 2nd century
A.D., may be one of the oldest copies of Thucydides ever found,
Verhoogt said.

“What’s a Roman veteran doing with Greek
literature?” he asked. According to classical studies Prof.
Traianos Gagos, president of the American Society of Papyrologists,
the fragment may indicate that the older soldier came from an
educated family, especially coupled with Latin texts in the archive
that suggest he could read multiple languages.

The letters paint a picture of an ordinary young man, Stephan
said, who writes to ask for warm socks and boots and to ask his
reluctant father for permission to marry his girlfriend.

The Karanis papyri are unusual because they are associated with
artifacts from the same house, said Kelsey Museum curator Susan
Alcock. Most papyri are purchased from dealers and can only be
examined out of context since the exact location of origin is
usually unknown.

“What Karanis offers is a chance to reconstruct daily life
in this perfectly ordinary little town, which is impossible almost
anywhere else in the world,” she said. The artifacts include
a toy sword, pots and pans, fragments of clothing and other
bric-a-brac, rendered precious by their 2,000-year history. These
and other artifacts from the town of Karanis are currently on
display in an exhibit at the Kelsey Museum, “Archaeologies of
Childhood: The First Years of Life in Roman Egypt.”

Of Stephan, who works at the Kelsey Museum, Alcock said,
“Rob’s a real live wire — enthusiasm personified.
He’s going to make a mark on the field, I suspect.”

In March, Stephan won the Phillips Classical Prize in Greek
translation, for which he translated part of the New Testament from
Greek similar to that in which the new papyri are written. Although
he has never been to Egypt, he has taken part in archaeological
excavations in southwest New Mexico and Tennessee.

Stephan plans to continue his independent study and to follow up
with graduate work after senior year. “The Indiana Jones
movies made me want to be an archaeologist,” he said.
“I want to be Indiana Jones when I grow up.”

 


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