British Columbia

UBC papyrus scraps offer glimpse into everyday ancient life

Recently rediscovered papyri at UBC offer insight into the daily workings of ordinary people's lives in ancient Roman Egypt.

Ancient dinner invitation and a letter to mom could be mistaken for modern emails

UBC professor Toph Marshall examines two small papyrus scraps which are believed to be the first of their kind in Western Canada. (Pauline Holdsworth)

They may be written on 1,800-year-old papyrus, but when you translate them and read them out loud, they sound just like modern emails. 

Two small scraps of papyrus were recently rediscovered at the University of British Columbia Library's Rare Books and Special Collections.

One, smaller than a business card, is a reminder of a dinner invitation. The other is a letter written by a boy to his mother, saying hello, wishing her well and asking her to visit soon.

"I find that startling, that someone living 1,800 years ago could be writing a letter that frankly I could use to write to my mom," said Toph Marshall, a professor at UBC's department of classical, near eastern and religious studies.

The pieces have been stored at UBC since the 1930s, but until now were minimally catalogued and remained largely unnoticed as other collections, donations and projects took precedence.

Scraps discovered inside giant garbage dump

The content of the scraps of paper seems so inconsequential, it's hard to believe that they survived nearly two millennia. 

Strangely enough, they may have survived precisely because they were thrown in the garbage, Marshall said.

Researchers believe these remnants were originally discovered amongst thousands of other papyri in an enormous rubbish dump in the city of Oxyrhynchus. The relatively constant humidity and stable temperature there was particularly conducive to preserving biological material like papyrus. 

A rare glimpse into everyday ancient life

"While we get lots of historians talking about the doings of the emperors and all that sort of thing, the insights into everyday lives of ordinary citizens in a remote province are often not appreciated," said Marshall.

"By looking at these scraps that somehow miraculously survive, we get to see what ordinary life was like.

"The ordinariness and the familiarity with this really suggests that times past, and cultures past, and different languages aren't insuperable. That we can understand them. That by looking at the documents that survive and what people have said about them, we can come to understand the human condition better."

To hear the full audio piece, listen to the file labelled: UBC papyrus offers insight into everyday life in ancient Egypt.


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