Faculty Spotlight: Preserving the Past in Papyrology

April 14, 2014
photo Brendan Haug
Brendan Haug brought his experience from working with papyrology collections at Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley, to U-M. (Photo by Martin Vloet, Michigan Photography)

Papyrologist studies ancient treasures, preserves the past

By Erika Nestor, The University Record
April 7, 2014

As archivist of the University of Michigan's Papyrology Collection, Brendan Haug has the unique privilege of overseeing 30 pages from an original codex of the Letters of Paul from the New Testament.

It is one of the star attractions from the university's world-renowned library, where Haug manages a collection containing thousands of ancient texts on papyrus, ostraka (broken pieces of pottery), and wood and wax tablets.

The university's pages from the Letters of Paul are the oldest anywhere in the world, and they draw a diverse audience of scholars, students, and religious groups, who flock to the eighth floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library.

"It's well studied and published, but it's something people like to experience for themselves," Haug says.

Although the pages from the Letters of Paul are now stored securely behind glass, their historical use has left a visible trace on the frayed edges of each page.

"You can look back in time and see someone reading the book, turning the pages," Haug says.

Visitors to the environmentally controlled vault of the Papyrology Room are greeted by an unlikely sight: a repurposed row of sports lockers from the Department of Athletics houses several hundred of the documents. With an appointment, they are available to anyone interested in the classics.

"One of the things we want to do is build awareness among students that this is a resource for them. We try to make it as accessible as possible," Haug says.

Haug joined U-M in January, with experience in the papyrology collections at Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a Ph.D. in ancient history in 2012. He has a double appointment at U-M, also working as assistant professor in the Department of Classical Studies.

The U-M collection is "wide ranging, everything from four-line tax receipts to literature and Christian texts," Haug says.

Studying the classics gives students a window to the past, allowing them to experience common trends through the centuries.

"What's on these things is everything that you would find in your own house written down on paper," he says.

In 2007, while at Berkeley, Haug discovered his favorite hobby: motorcycling.

"I like motorcycling for the same reason one of my mentors likes mountain climbing. It requires so much attention to what you're doing that it forces you to not think about work," he says.

When the weather improves, Haug says, he is looking forward to exploring the Ann Arbor area with his motorcycle — safely, of course.

"No wheelies," he laughs.

Q&A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

For me, it's when I can explain material that looks impenetrable to the students, and they were just thinking “ancient people are weird.” But people were dealing with all of the same problems in antiquity, even though we're divided by space and time. We still have people showing up on April 15 to collect taxes!

What can't you live without?

Good friends. Academia can be very lonely if you do it all the time, so it’s good to have people around.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

My office in Papyrology, on the eighth floor of Hatcher. It's one of the highest places on campus, and a great place to work, with a beautiful view.

What inspires you?

For me, it's knowing that there's no way I could ever achieve as much as my predecessors, and so I'm simply trying to live up to their standards, and carry their work forward.

What are you currently reading?

"Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam" by Nick Turse. It's a relatively recent history of the Vietnam War written by a journalist, from previously classified U.S. government documents.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My father. He was not an academic but rather an English teacher in high school, and he loved to read and learn things. He had a big interest in antiquity; he found Greece and Rome fascinating. So I grew up around someone who formed that interest early on in my life.

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Last modified: 04/14/2014