Papyrus documents for legal, business, and personal purposes give us firsthand insight into historical events, since they directly reflect the contemporary contexts in which they were written. They provide a more intimate view of ancient history than the literary sources, which were written by professional authors or historians who often had their own particular agendas. But no papyri were written in a cultural vacuum. Modern scholars can get much more out of these sources when they take into account the context in which they were written. For example, it is important to know if a particular papyrus was found together with other texts and/or artifacts, in a specific building, or on a rubbish heap.
For many papyri, the context is not known, because they were excavated illegally and offered for sale on the antiquities market. Fortunately, however, numerous papyri were (and are) found in systematic excavations, so that the circumstances of their discovery are known.
A large portion of the University of Michigan papyrus collection consists of the papyri found during excavations at the site of ancient Karanis from 1924 to 1935. Although the excavations were not on the level of present-day field archaeology, the University of Michigan team, lead by Francis W. Kelsey, attempted to excavate and record the site systematically, thus giving a context for many of the papyri in the Michigan collection.
The Fayum is a low basin in the desert, about 100 miles southwest of modern Cairo. The lowest level of this depression is 44 meters below sea-level. The Fayum receives water through the so-called Canal of Joseph (Bahr Yussuf), which is actually not a canal but a branch of the Nile River. Even as early as Pharaonic time the Egyptians regulated the the water supply by building sluices to control the inflow of water. In the third century B.C.E. the Ptolemies continued the construction of sluices and canals, thus enlarging threefold the area of the Fayum that could be used for agriculture. The Fayum was (and is) the most fertile area of Egypt.
|Karanis 1934 aerial photograph|
|Boxes used to transport papyri back to Ann Arbor|