Ancient Egyptian papyri rediscovered in UBC library

WATCH: Two scraps of ancient papyrus have been rediscovered at UBC after sitting on a shelf unnoticed for 85 years

It was a lucky discovery, or rather rediscovery, made by a UBC grad student.

Two small papyrus scraps dating back to Roman-age Egypt, about 1,800 years ago, were discovered at UBC Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

They have been sitting on the shelf since the 1930s, minimally catalogued and largely unnoticed among thousands of items in the vast collection.

But it was not until classical studies PhD student Chelsea Gardner, who came across them during her research, that the papyri were rediscovered, 85 years later.

The two notes are a reminder for a dinner invitation and a letter from a young man to his mother. Both are written in Greek.

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The dinner invitation calls for guests “to dine at the couch of the lord Sarapis.” The young man’s letter wishes his mother good health, talks about how he thinks of her daily and asks her to visit soon.

A letter written by a young man to his mother in Roman-age Egypt.

Both papyri were excavated from what was believed to be a garbage dump in Egypt. They made their way to UBC in the 1930s via the University of Michigan.

The scraps consist of material from the papyrus plant, a reed used to produce the ancient equivalent of paper.

The papyri are the first of their kind in Western Canada. Ancient papyrus writings are very rare in Canada, offering a glimpse into intimate details of life in Roman Egypt.

“These documents are a window on a lost world, revealing the daily activities of ordinary people,” says Toph Marshall, a professor at UBC’s department of classical, near eastern and religious studies.

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The papyri have now been digitized and will be used as a teaching tool for workshops and classroom sessions on papyrology and palaeography.

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