913 S. University Avenue
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
A world-renowned collection of ancient texts and documents dating from about 1,000 BCE to 1,000 CE
The University of Michigan Library is home to the largest collection of ancient papyri in North America. The documents in the Papyrology Collection, which span roughly 2,000 years, contain not only important religious texts — including 60 pages of the oldest known copy of the Epistles of Paul — but also personal letters, school primers, sales contracts and other records that paint a unique portrait of everyday life. Of the 18,000 pieces in the collection, about 5,000 have never been studied and translated, and continue to attract scholars from across the country and around the world.
The collection also continues to draw hundreds of visitors each year, including K-12 students, undergraduate and graduate students, and religious groups interested in the early artifacts of their faith.
“Reading Plato is great, but here you can see and touch pieces of the ancient world,” says collection manager Monica Tsuneishi. Along with texts written on papyrus, the collection also includes documents written on wood and wax tablets.
The roots of the collection go back almost a century to Francis Willey Kelsey, a professor of Latin at U-M, who believed students would benefit from studying historical objects directly. Kelsey traveled through Europe and Middle East purchasing items for the university and later organized excavations in Egypt and elsewhere.
Unlike most antiquarians of his day, Kelsey insisted on the recording of the precise locations where artifacts and documents were found inside each building, especially in Karanis — an ancient town in Egypt excavated by U-M between 1924 and 1935. As a result, many items in the U-M collection include additional clues about the context in which they were used.
The collection presents a wealth of possibilities for original research by both students and scholars, says Arthur Verhoogt, acting archivist of the Papyrology Collection and Professor of Papyrology and Greek.
For example, seemingly boring account records may offer new insights on the demographics of the era, lifespan, marriage patterns or the productivity of ancient farmers.