The papyrus fragments rediscovered at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Library include a reminder for an invitation to dinner and a letter to a young man’s mother. The invitation calls guests to dine at “the couch of Lord Sarapis” while the letter written by a young Egyptian man wishes his mother good health and tells her that he thinks of her daily.
Scan of the young man’s letter (UBC Library)
The two documents are written in Greek and can be dated to the period when the Romans ruled Egypt, some 1,800 years ago. The letter was partly cut and rearranged during the early 20th century in order to make it more attractive to antiquities buyers.
“Together, they reveal intimate details of life in Roman Egypt” Professor Toph Marshall of UBC’s department of classical, near eastern and religious studies told UBC News. “These documents are a window on a lost world, revealing the daily activities of ordinary people.”
The fragments are small enough to fit into the palm of a hand and were discovered in Egypt in the 1930s.
They were initially brought to the University of Michigan before being moved again to UBC. They have been stored at UBC Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC) since the 1930s where they largely remained unnoticed. However in 2014, PhD student in classics Chelsea Gardner contacted RBSC seeking some Babylonian clay tablets for a digitalization project. A librarian at RBSC thought that the fragments might also be of interest. Gardner in turn brought them to the attention of Professor Toph Marshall.
Marshall and colleagues have now written a paper on the documents and are hoping to use them in workshops and classroom sessions. The library has also now digitized the papyri and Katherine Kalsbeek, acting head of RBSC, has suggested that they might assemble a collection of Egyptology material for teaching purposes.
Papyrus is a reed that was used in Ancient Egypt to make the ancient equivalent of paper. It was found almost exclusively in the Delta region of Lower Egypt.
The process used the pith of the plant to make documents and it is primarily known for its use in Ancient Egypt, going back as far as the First Dynasty, when Upper and Lower Egypt first became one country under King Narmer, although it may have been used even earlier. Papyrus was also used in other Mediterranean countries and in the kingdom of Kush, an ancient state located at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile. The Egyptians may have used papyrus in the manufacture of boats, mats, rope, sandals and baskets and the root of the plant was also a source of food, medicine, and perfume.
Papyrus, which later gave rise to our modern word ‘paper’, had a different meaning in the beginning. The original, Egyptian meaning is “that which belongs to the house”, referring to documents used in Ancient Egyptian bureaucracy. Papyrus became increasingly important with the development of writing, since papyrus was much easier to carry around than stone. Papyrus continued to be in use up until the 11th century AD.
The most extensive papyrus is a document recording mathematical calculations preserved in the British Museum. The text of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which was discovered by a Scottish lawyer in the 1850s, contains 84 problems including numerical operations, practical problem-solving, and geometrical shapes. The scribe that wrote the document recorded that he was writing in year 33 of the reign of Apophis, a king of the Hyksos Fifteenth Dynasty (1650-1550 BC) and that he was copying an earlier document from the Twelfth Dynasty (about 1985-1795 BC). The other side of the papyrus records the capture of some Egyptian towns, probably during the war between the Egyptians and the Hyksos invaders before the start of the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC).