Papyrology: A Discipline for the Curious

When I was a little girl I was entranced by the story of King Tut. Before I could read independently, I begged my father to read my All About Archeology book over and over (and over!). I loved picturing the gold glinting in the just-opened tomb, but almost as fascinating were the questions raised by the things inside. My long-out-of-print junior archeology book made it clear that archeology was full of mystery, puzzles, and unanswered questions. Perhaps that is why I’m still such a fan of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books!

Recently I had a chance to re-experience a bit of that wonder, when I visited the University of Michigan’s Papyrology Collection. The collection introduced me to some fascinating documents, but also to a discipline I’d never encountered: papyrology. What do papyrologists do? They decipher ancient documents written on papyrus. This can be a daunting task. Documents may be written in Egyptian (in its different scripts), Aramaic, ancient Greek, Latin, or Arabic. And, of course, they are rarely found whole and complete, so papyrologists often work with fragments, or documents riddled with holes. Even for those of us who can’t read a word of ancient languages, the documents can be fascinating. Looking at the differences in handwriting—particularly when more than one person signed a particular document—made those long-ago writers seem very real. I felt very fortunate to be able to visit.

But you don’t need to come to Ann Arbor to experience at least part of the wonder of this collection. There are amazing digitized resources for scholars, but also ample online resources for K-12 educators. You might start with the general K-12 overview materials, but don’t miss some of the other gems linked in the Online Exhibits area. Would you like to see ancient school exercises? How about some doodles probably done in class? I’ll admit it takes some exploring to find all the resources that could be useful, but if you teach about ancient cultures, it will be time well invested.

I particularly love this site because not only is it full of information, but it helps us envision how the information came to be understood. Learning the creative and investigative strategies of different disciplines is an important step toward creative thinking. This site brings us the methodologies of a discipline I’d never before considered, and it bound to lead interested students to more questioning and exploration. Sounds like a good place to go (virtually) exploring!

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