Where do the Papyri Come From?

Nearly all papyri which survive today come from Egypt, although papyrus was in use throughout the ancient world. Papyrus is a perishable, organic material, and its survival through the ages has depended heavily on the climatic conditions found in a few regions of Egypt. Outside of Egypt, rare examples of papyrus have been preserved by the process of carbonization.

Egypt and the Fayum

Throughout Egypt, the desert sand has preserved not only the papyri but also other organic items that are of interest to archaeologists, including wood and foodstuffs such as wheat, fruit, and nuts. The papyri that have been preserved in the desert are generally in good shape, although most pieces are damaged (torn, frayed, or worm-eaten) to various degrees, and many are fragmentary.

The first papyri found in Egypt were in fact discovered not by archaeologists, but by local farmers who stumbled upon them in the mounds of soil covering ancient sites. The discovery of these papyri led to numerous excavations in Egypt seeking to dig up ancient papyri. In excavations, papyri may be found in a number of areas including homes, offices, tombs, and garbage dumps. A number of papyri have also been discovered in mummy cartonnage; recycled papyrus was often used to stuff and wrap the embalmed bodies.


Egypt The Fayum


Papyri can be found in nearly any area of Egypt that was far enough from the Nile to remain dry. Unfortunately, this excludes the area of the delta and the city of Alexandria. The map of Egypt above shows two sites of papyrological significance, Oxyrhynchus and the Fayum, in relation to some other major ancient cities.

Many thousands of papyri have been unearthed at various rural villages in the region known as the Fayum. The University of Michigan's papyrus collection includes thousands of papyri from the town of Karanis, which was excavated by Francis Kelsey in the 1920s and 30s. Oxyrhynchus is another site that has produced an abundance of papyri; well over sixty volumes have been published in the P.Oxy. series, begun by the famous pioneering papyrologists Grenfell and Hunt.


Carbonized Papyri

In special circumstances, when papyrus is exposed to extreme heat but is not consumed by fire, the papyrus may become carbonized. As a result of the carbonization process, the papyrus takes on a charcoal-like, blackened apperance and is usually heavily damaged and difficult to read. However, the same process also protects the papyrus from future decay. As a result of carbonization, papyrologists are able to study texts that are from regions other than Egypt, thus expanding the range of information available from the papyri.


Photograph of a carbonized papyrus roll from Petra


Two of the most significant cases of carbonized papyri are the Herculaneum papyri and the Petra papyri. The Herculaneum papyri were discovered in the 18th century in a Roman villa that was buried by ash during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (the same eruption that buried the city of Pompeii). This "Villa of the Papyri" contained an extensive library of literary bookrolls, which date to roughly the time of the eruption (79 A.D.). Several U-M papyrologists are involved in working on Herculaneum papyri, particularly on the Philodemus Project.

The Petra papyri are a group of about twenty papyrus rolls from the sixth century A.D., which were carbonized when the church that housed them suffered severe fire damage. These rolls were discovered in the 1990s during the excavation of the site of Petra, Jordan. They are currently being published by papyrologists from the University of Michigan and Helsinki University, under the auspices of the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan.


Page maintained by Monica Tsuneishi
Last modified: 03/11/2014