Take a look inside your garbage can. What’s in there? Mostly things you no longer need, the expendable stuff of daily life: a Jimmy John’s wrapper, an old t-shirt, a used condom. Invariably there will be something with words on it. Maybe it’s highfalutin — like a copy of Foucault’s “The Archaeology of Knowledge” bought for a class that you immediately dropped. Or a page torn out of a used paperback of “The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.” But more often than not, the writing will be on items that document everyday transactions and obligations: a receipt from CVS, a lease for your house, a job application. Even in this digital age, there are plenty of pieces of paper with words on them.
All of this gets taken to the dump. Now imagine what would happen if 2,000 years later, someone excavated that dump and found your bag of garbage. What could they figure out about you, about the society you lived in, about your daily life?
Perhaps there is a BuzzFeed quiz titled “21 Things Your Garbage Says About You.” But if you venture into Hatcher Library, up the big steps and into the lobby, walk to the second floor, pass by the computers, get in an elevator, go to the eighth floor and take a right, you’ll find a place where this thought experiment comes to life.
Unbeknownst to most, the University owns the largest collection of papyri in North America, the vast majority of which come from Greco-Roman Egypt. A paper-like material made from the treated tissue of the Cyperus papyrus plant, papyrus was commonly used in antiquity for writing. But it wasn’t until the turn of the century that archaeologists and amateurs alike began to dig up these papyri and study them.
“Back in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, this sort of stuff was coming out of the ground by really the truckload as Egyptian farmers, spurred on by the Egyptian government, were expanding agriculture back into the desert — areas that had been occupied in antiquity, and that had then been deserted,” said Brendan Haug, assistant professor of classical studies and an archivist of the Papyrology Collection.
Ironically, Egypt is the best place to find literature from Ancient Greece and Rome because so many villages, and their houses and garbage dumps, were abandoned. This left the remaining papyri undisturbed in the hot sand for nearly a millennium.
“Clearing out archaeological sites to plant new fields, this stuff was just part of the detritus that was coming up, and because the area is so dry all this stuff got preserved,” Haug said.
The University’s collection was sourced in two different ways. The first was through the antiquities trade, in which various dealers would buy papyri and other artifacts from farmers and sell them in big cities like Cairo. Then, the University began to excavate the village of Karanis, in the Fayum region, which contained an abundance of papyri.
Our collection was the brainchild of Francis Kelsey, a professor of Latin language and literature at the University from 1889 to 1927. Kelsey, who was also an ardent archaeology enthusiast, is the namesake of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology on campus.
“It was his idea to start bringing this material to Ann Arbor so that students could work with it here instead of having to take a boat all the way to Egypt to look at papyri,” Haug said.
How the papyri are handled and stored has evolved over the years. Haug allowed me to enter “The Vault,” an environmentally controlled room used for storing fragile documents and artifacts. Its appearance is deceivingly simple — just a few rows of shelves, some cabinets, with cold, sterile air like a hospital waiting room. However, these shelves hold thousands of papyrus fragments, sandwiched between panes of glass or gently hugged in acid-free folders.
Other fragments are not as organized. Back when the University was excavating Karanis, archaeologists would find so many small fragments that they just dumped them in whatever containers were available — along the lines of tin boxes emblazoned with the logos of French chocolate and Egyptian cigarette companies. Haug opens one for me, and inside are dozens of jumbled scraps, like wood shavings swept up in a workshop.
Fragments like these, before they can be studied by papyrologists, must be worked on by a conservator. The University collection has two dedicated conservators: Ulrike Lau-Lamb and Marieka Kaye, who must deal with a wide variety of corrupting elements on the papyri.
“There’s so many things that might need to be done, but it is mainly removing dirt that might be caked on and obscuring letters, or fibers might be misaligned, and letters can’t be seen,” Kaye said.
Even when the fragments can be adequately cleaned and straightened, there’s no guarantee that they’ll even be intelligible.
“Sometimes there’s like five different pieces scattered that have to be put together like a puzzle, and we have papyrologists that help us piece it together,” Kaye said.
The tools of the trade are more primitive than one might think; Q-tips, tweezers, a miniature bellow to blast a millennium of desert sand off of the words. These suffice, but there’s always more upkeep to do.
“You feel like you’re never done, because there’s always more fibers you can straighten, and just one fiber can make a difference,” Kaye said.
Once the scraps are treated, they are ready to be studied. Papyrology can be split into two sub-fields: literary and documentary. For literary papyrology, there’s no better person to talk to at Michigan than Richard Janko, the Gerald F. Else Distinguished University Professor of Classical Studies. His engagement with antiquity began during his childhood in England.
“When I was quite young, my father used to do work for a farmer across the valley, who turned out not to be a farmer in the end, and he was someone who was very fond of Greece and of Greek, and I became fascinated by ancient languages and scripts,” Janko said.
Why was this man not actually a farmer? The answer seems lifted straight out of “Indiana Jones.”
“I found out years later, after the friend of my father had died, that he wasn’t actually a farmer; he was a British secret agent,” Janko said.
Whoever this man was, it worked. Janko is now a renowned practitioner of reconstructing ancient books, often using papyrological evidence. Right now, he is working with another set of papyri from the Roman town of Herculaneum that was destroyed alongside Pompeii.
“They haven’t been very readable until now, because they’re burned black, and the ink is black, and the background is black, and black on black is very hard to see, but now we’ve got wonderful imaging technologies and these things are finally becoming readable, so we are getting a lot of new texts out of them,” Janko said.
The imaging technology he is referring to is Reflectance Transformation Imaging, in which a crumpled, burned text can be “smoothed” by taking photographs of it from various angles and levels of light. To demonstrate, Janko showed me an RTI image of a Herculaneum papyrus, which is part of a previously unstudied book on poetics by the philosopher Philodemus. By strategically adjusting the angles and lighting on the image, we were able to illuminate a single word — akouain, Greek for “hearing.”
Even with this technology, papyrologists face a challenge. Many authors, like the lyric poet Sappho, are only known to us through fragments, acquired either through discoveries of papyri or from being quoted in extant works.
“It’s very difficult, because don’t even know for certain whether the poems are complete. We need more papyri of people like Sappho, which is something that we hope for from a collection like Michigan’s, which is not something we hope for necessarily in vain,” Janko said.
The most conventionally exciting texts in the University collection are literary and biblical ones, for obvious reasons. To read a translation of the Epistles of Saint Paul is one thing. But to gaze upon the earliest known copy of them — just a few sheets of frayed and yellowed papyri — is an experience best described as religious. However, the less-glamorous material often contains the most interesting information.
“The major interest in the early days was literature or biblical material,” Haug said.
“It became apparent by the early-20th century that there was, just by volume, vastly more material to work with if you wanted to work on things like economics, the history of agriculture, history of administration, law, etc.,” he added.
Like us, the people of Karanis documented their business in writing.
“Everything that involves money and obligations, the things that generate paperwork now, were the same in antiquity,” Haug said.
So at a site like Karanis, there are numerous documents that track obligations: tax records, contracts, deeds of sale. These transactions weren’t just written on papyrus — pottery shards, called ostraka, were often used for writing.
“Broken pots were everywhere. You can compare them to the cigarette butts or gum wrappers of antiquity,” Haug said.
One can learn a surprising amount from these seemingly meaningless documents.
“Any one document is fairly banal, you know, ‘Who cares?’ ” Haug said. “But in large numbers you can put them all together, all the documents from a single place and single time, you can start to tell some interesting stories from them.”
And unlike the literature in the collection, which had been transmitted and copied for hundreds of years until it got to Karanis, these documents are both time — and region — specific.
“You can say a lot more about a text if you know where it comes from. It’s actually a thing, as much a thing as a piece of pottery or the head of a statue,” Haug said. “It’s an artifact.”
Given this regional specificity, papyrologists must be careful to not make too many assumptions.
“You can look at the documentation from, say, Karanis, and ask yourself, ‘Can I use this documentation to generalize about the rest of Egypt, let alone the rest of the Mediterranean?’ ” Haug said. “I think legitimately the answer is no, to the second part of that. The Mediterranean is an incredibly large place, and even within a single region, they’re going to have their own unique socioeconomic structures.”
This makes sense even now — housing deeds from Ann Arbor wouldn’t necessarily paint an accurate portrait of the real estate market in Detroit. But because the Romans were notoriously efficient and organized, records from Karanis can inform our understanding of the larger empire.
“It gives you a lot of information on how the Ptolemaic state, and the larger Roman Empire, functioned on the ground,” Haug said.
But every so often, something in the collection will transcend economics or agriculture, or even literature, in its human significance. On one piece of papyrus, a doodle was found on the back; someone in antiquity had drawn an elephant and a head with antennae.
But the best example is a letter found in a collapsed house in Karanis. It was sent in the 2nd century A.D. by a young Roman sailor to his mother. In his letter, this man tells his mother that he will be based at the port of Naples, and that she shouldn’t worry about him even though he won’t be home for a long time.
“There’s a human element to it — you’d write the same letter to your mother today if you were in the military,” Haug said.
This letter, which survived by chance, represents the unique allure that is the University’s Papyrological Collection. People, past and present, write down things they want to remember, and things they want others to remember. So whether it’s a housing contract or a chapter of Homer, all of these things must have meant something to someone at sometime.
Haug put it best: “We have the highest of the high and the lowest of the low and everything in between.”