Rare Books rediscovers 1,800 year old papyrus

The UBC Library made an interesting discovery in its collections: two ancient scraps of papyri that date back to Egypt around 1,800 years ago.

The first is a small note, roughly the size of a business card, sent to a dinner guest as a reminder about an invitation to “dine at the couch of the Lord Serapis.” Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies (CNERS) professor Toph Marshall says that the note would likely have been sent by a slave on behalf of a household; its closest modern analog might be the Victorian calling card.

The second piece of papyri is a letter sent from a young man to his mother, wishing her good health and asking that she visit soon. Content-wise, Marshall says, the letter is pretty typical of what you’d expect any newly independent young man to send to his mom.

“The letter itself is just filled with platitudes,” he said. “What a 19-year-old boy writes to his mom, how much variation is there really? ‘Hope you’re doing well, I’m not dead yet’ -- that’s what it comes down to.”

Still, Marshall gleaned some insights about the artifact from reading between the lines. The young man’s use of a military idiom suggests that he may have been a soldier; the fact that he’s crossed out and re-written a few words demonstrates that he likely wrote the letter himself.

“It’s not grand insights by any means, but all these pieces sort of add to this composite portrait to show that these are real people who had real lives, who had real concerns,” said Marshall.

Similarly, the letter’s current shape says a lot about how it was previously handled. Certain parts of the papyri have been cut up and moved around to create a more symmetrical appearance. As a result, some of the characters have been obscured, and others are completely upside-down.

Marshall said that the rearrangement was likely done in the early 20th century by an antiques seller looking to make a “buck and a half.” Unfortunately, this sort of artifact mishandling is an ongoing problem for researchers and archivists.

“Across from the British Museum in London right now there are antiquities dealers, so it has always been part of the appeal of the ancient world. Some people want to own these things for private collections, so in this case we’re fortunate to have it in a university library,” he said.

Some time after surviving the cut-and-paste job, the papyri made their way to UBC in the 1930s. Once at UBC, the scraps were catalogued and have only been rediscovered in the past year due to the efforts of two intrepid Chelseas.

Chelsea Gardner, a PhD student in classics, is currently spearheading a digitization project called “From Stone to Screen.” During her research, she came in contact with Chelsea Shriver, a librarian with UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections. Shriver came upon the papyri and asked Gardner if she might be interested in using them as part of the project; Gardner most certainly was.

Since then, the papyri have already contributed to UBC research in a number of ways. Along with a colleague at the University of Windsor, Gardner and Marshall have written an article on the rediscovery and submitted it for publication. Marshall has plans to use the scraps in upcoming workshops on palaeography and papyrology. And, in time, the UBC Library hopes to use the papyri as the beginning of an Egyptology collection.

A final benefit of rediscovering the papyri: it’s just very, very cool.

Marshall is inclined to agree:

“I’ve got the best job," he said.