Review of Discarded, Discovered, Collected
A. M. F. W. Verhoogt, Discarded, Discovered, Collected: The University of Michigan Papyrus Collection. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. Pp. xv, 186. ISBN 9780472053643. $39.95 (pb).
Reviewed by W. Andrew Smith, Shepherds Theological Seminary
The University of Michigan papyrus collection is the largest in the US. As the collection approaches the centennial anniversary of its inception, a welcome introduction to its history, research, and influence has been provided in Discarded, Discovered, Collected by Arthur Verhoogt, professor of Papyrology and Greek at the University of Michigan. The brief volume introduces the collection in a format resembling a virtual tour, guiding the reader through individual items in the collection, with 65 color images of the manuscripts and five color charts. No knowledge of ancient languages is required, as every manuscript is presented in translation. Online resources are referenced for the non- specialist who desires to explore other pieces in the collection, and nearly every chapter ends with a short Further Reading bibliography. Verhoogt is to be commended for making this book accessible to a wide audience interested in papyri from ancient Egypt.
The first two chapters provide a helpful overview of the breadth of the collection and its history. While the collection has assigned 18,000 inventory numbers, not every piece has been thoroughly examined; numerous researched items have been returned to Egypt; there are 1,100 potsherds in the collection; and the university inherited 200 papyri from Cornell in 1972. Thus, the size of the collection varies depending on what is being counted. Items range in age from the eleventh century BCE to the fifteenth–sixteenth century CE, with most items dating to the second–fourth century CE. Contents range from important biblical manuscripts, to classical literature (Homer, of course, being best represented), to a wealth of official and private writing. Verhoogt also highlights the personnel involved in establishing, maintaining, and expanding the collection: the “driving force” of Professor Francis Willey Kelsey (1858–1927), Herbert C. Youtie (1904–80), Ludwig Koenen (b. 1931), and Traianos Gagos (1960–2010) are discussed in turn. In particular, Kelsey’s vision of providing students access to the physical remains of the ancient world set the tone for the collection. He acquired a broad range of materials touring Europe and the Near East, as his first trip yielded 534 items in Greek, Latin, Hieratic, Demotic, Coptic, Arabic, and Hebrew. Remarkably, Kelsey was able to draw in fellow faculty members to work on the collection, none of them papyrologists at the time but several now familiar names in the field (Sanders, Packet, et al.). Kelsey also established a consortium with other universities and the British Museum so that funds might be pooled to purchase manuscripts through a single agent. Though the consortium was dissolved because of the Great Depression, the core collection at Michigan had reached 2,800 items by that time, primarily supplied by the French antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman. While Youtie and Koenen are well- known for their published contributions to papryology, it was Gagos’ partnership with Roger Bagnall (then at Columbia University) and John Oates (Duke University) that established the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) and made papyrological materials widely available online.
In the third and fourth chapters, Verhoogt takes a surprising but welcome turn to introduce readers to papyrological conservation and the general study of papyri. His seven-page overview of storage/glazing, environmental controls, and cleaning of papyri should be sufficient to make a beginning papyrology student aware of the prominent issues of preservation; as specialists know, “there is, to date, no school for papyrus conservation” (23). This is followed by the fourth chapter’s 15-page overview of the process of studying papyri. This look at how scholars in related fields (e.g., history, Greek or Latin, Near Eastern studies) began editing the papyrus collection should be particularly encouraging to students who are beginning this work. Verhoogt is frank about easier papyri being selected for publication first, the iterative process of reading difficult papyri, and the frustrations that may accompany the work. A photo of the preliminary transcription notes of Orsamus Pearl for P.Mich.inv. 4694 is a wonderful illustration of such work in progress (Fig. 4.3 on page 31).
Background information in papyrology—as viewed through the collection—continues in the fifth and sixth chapters, “Writing Materials” and “Languages.” The fifth treats writing surfaces, each with an illustration and translated text, including papyrus, ostraca, wood, wax tablets, parchment, limestone, leather, and paper. Additionally, there is a cursory discussion of inks and writing implements (pens and brushes). Regarding languages, Greek is the primary language preserved in the collection, though others are represented: Coptic, Arabic, Demotic, Latin, Hieratic, and Hebrew. Each is discussed briefly with an illustration, with Greek receiving the longest treatment (including illustrations from the Ptolemaic, Roman, and Byzantine eras of Greek handwriting). Also addressed are the issues of literacy and how the illiterate are represented in contracts, and the illustrative texts include some intriguing glimpses into the private lives of ancient people.
Chapters seven (“School Texts”) and eight (“Ancient Books”) examine how ancient writers first learned to write, and then how written materials were formatted. Examples of school texts illustrate the steps of learning the alphabet, creating letter combinations, writing full words, and then copying sentences. This section ends with a brief example of mathematical exercises, as the collection includes a very large scroll of fractions (P.Mich.inv. 621). Verhoogt then provides examples of rolls, codices, medical handbooks, and pocket editions. There is a thoughtful note to non-specialists on distinguishing verse from prose based on the evenness of right margins.
Chapter nine is the longest in the book (“Ancient Lives in Writing,” pages 103–131) and examines aspects of daily life as seen in documentary papyri. This aspect of the “tour” has wide appeal, discussing events such as births, deaths, marriages, religious practice, business dealings, learning a trade, and the like. Candid exposure to the lives of ancient people through their letters and other paperwork has a charm that Verhoogt uses here to capture the reader’s imagination. This continues in chapter 10, where Verhoogt examines the collected works of archives (family, personal, and professional, insofar as such distinctions may be made) and compares them to dossiers produced by modern scholars. The examples used include the archives of Zenon (professional), Sabinus and his son Apollinarius (family), Petaus the illiterate Village Scribe (official), and Ploutogeneia (family).
Kelsey visited the excavation of ancient Karanis in Egypt (modern Kom el Aushim) in the early 1920s and raised money for the university to dig there from 1924–1935. Despite failed attempts to secure the site and the race against the sebkheen who were digging for fertilizer, the archaeological work in Karanis was phenomenally productive and provides a data-rich setting for the papyri uncovered there. In the 11th chapter, Verhoogt sketches an outline history of the excavation at Karanis and produces five snapshots of life in the city through individual papyri and information on the structures in which they were found. He wisely cautions against naïve connections between the structural findspot of a papyrus and the papyrus itself, reminding the reader that “each papyrus has to be interpreted as an archaeological object first, before the relation between the specific text and the inhabitants of the structure in which it was found can be determined” (148).
In a short concluding chapter, the author provides “personal musings about some possible directions of activity” (169) for the collection. Of note is his comment about finding collaborative work on smaller fragments of the collection to be quite fruitful in the classroom, reporting that “there have been cases of the group reading all 14 lines in a damaged text within an hour” (170); such work has only become possible with the digitization of the papyri. Also of note is his desire for the University of Michigan to provide a model for dealing with the “moral and legal issues of collecting ancient artifacts” (173). Establishing provenance for artifacts is a particularly contentious issue, and Verhoogt wisely urges “transparency, a constructive dialogue with relevant parties, and a readiness to deal with whatever the consequences are” (173). This brief conclusion is followed by six pages of endnotes, a single-page papyrological source index, and a subject index.
Verhoogt states in the book’s front matter that he wanted to create a gateway to the online world of papyrology and make it accessible to the “uninitiated” without dumbing down the material. With that goal in mind, this book is an outstanding success. Both the uninitiated and the novice papyrology student will find much of use in this volume, one that is also an enjoyable read.
This review was originally published by the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.