Several library collections are now making the most fragile documents of their archives available on the Web: documents existing on fragments of papyrus, made from the fibers of reeds harvested in the Nile marshes of Egypt and Sudan long ago. These ancient documents were preserved by the dry heat of the desert and have survived to the present day.
One of these collections is the Duke Papyrus Archive of the Special Collections Library at Duke University, which provides electronic access to images of 1,373 papyri from ancient Egypt and texts about them. The project, which entailed the conserving, interpreting, cataloguing and imaging of the largely unpublished Duke papyrus collection, is a resource of tremendous value for everybody studying the cultures of ancient Egypt, in particular papyrologists, ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists. The project was directed by Steven L. Hensen, Director of Planning and Project Development at the Special Collections Library, and John F. Oates, Professor of Ancient History, directed the project, with financial support by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The website was created by Peter van Minnen, who conserved and interpreted the papyri, and Suzanne D. Corr, who catalogued and scanned them, with the assistance of Library Systems Coordinator Paul Mangiafico.
What makes the Papyrus Archive such a valuable resource is the extraordinary care that has been put into cataloguing the information and making the database searchable. The website provides background materials on papyri in general--including the history and future of papyrology and a general bibliography--and information about the acquisition, conservation, interpretation and imaging of the Duke papyri. The site also offers various search options; the images and texts about Duke papyri can be browsed by 10 topics, covering cultural, material, and religious aspects as well as geographical names, and by language--Demotic, Coptic, Greek, Latin, Arabic etc. (The only desirable feature missing is an English language translation of the individual text fragments.) Other options are to search the entire Duke Papyrus Archive for keywords--which gives access to texts, records and images--or to search only the records in the online catalogue of the Duke University Libraries.
The Duke papyri were acquired from various sources, usually from antiquities and rare book dealers, but also from donors. The papers of a particular official or an entire family were sometimes found together, but dispersed through the ignorance of an antiquities dealer. The website lists all papyri in the Duke collection that are known to form part of an archive from other papyri collections and features a chronological list of acquisitions, indicating which inventory numbers were acquired together--crucial information for those who try to join fragments of papyri that have not yet been properly identified and placed.
Another educational institution working on making its papyrus collection available online is the University of Michigan, which owns one of the largest and most prestigious collections of papyri. The University of Michigan has for some time applied computer technology to the study and management of its papyrus collection, digitizing and storing images of papyri which are then modified with software, thereby improving the image and enhancing the writing. Within the next few years, images of all papyri will be stored in a databank, which will archive electronic catalog records for each individual papyrus. In an effort to make papyrology more widely known to the academic community and to demonstrate the uses of scanned papyri, the university launched a test on the Web, the Papyrus Digitization Project. Its organizers are currently working on making the family archive of Paniskos of Philadelphia in Egypt available online. The first of about seven letters can be seen in experimental form at the site. The letters originally came from Gerzah and were purchased by the university in 1923. Belonging to the latter part of the third or the beginning of the fourth century, they form part of a family archive comprising the correspondence of a certain Paniskos with his wife Ploutogenia and his brother Aion, as well as the correspondence of Ploutogenia with her mother Heliodora. At the site, the translation of the letter appears in a frame next to its digital image, and the juxtaposition of these two representations of writing in itself creates an aesthetic value. The promise that further letters will be made available in the future, gradually revealing the characters of writers and recipients through their ancient correspondence, calls for regular visits to the Papyrus Collection's website.