The town of Karanis occupies a unique place in the annals of Egyptian and Graeco-Roman archaeology. Although no more than a rustic agricultural village in the Fayoum oasis, it looms large for us precisely because it provides a microcosm of life as it was lived by ordinary people in Egypt under Greek and Roman rule. The history of Karanis spans seven centuries, from the middle of the third century BC to the end of the fifth century AD. This was a period marked by momentous socioeconomic, political and religious change throughout the Mediterranean region - an era that saw not only the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great but also the rise, dominion and eventual decline of Rome. To our understanding of these larger fluctuations in Hellenistic and Roman society Karanis contributes a specific point of reference which is documented in exceptional detail. The dry climate of Egypt has fostered the preservation of fragile material such as papyrus documents that have perished in other parts of the ancient world. Greek papyri, found in abundance at Graeco-Roman sites in Egypt, supply vast quantities of information on all aspects of daily life; but those that were found at Karanis have acquired a special significance. Thanks to the excavations of the town by The University of Michigan, these precious written documents can be read in the context of a full array of the material remains of the town in which they were written. Houses, temples, granaries and all that the inhabitants left in them over many generations of occupation lend a tangible reality to the events the papyri record.

The mound of Karanis rises conspicuously twelve meters above the surrounding plain, between the Royal Road from Cairo and an ancient irrigation canal. The plain itself lies along a limestone ridge which forms the northeastern rim of Egypt's fertile lake district, known as the Fayoum. The nearby farming town of Kom Aushim can be reached within a two-hour drive from Egypt's capital city some fifty miles to the northeast. Ease of access to Karanis undoubtedly favored its development as a prosperous agricultural center in antiquity. In the present century this accessibility favored the town's exploration as an archaeological site.


Discovery and Documentation


The first "excavations" carried on at Karanis were anything but scientific; in fact, they caused much destruction of the site. As was common practice in Egypt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, local farmers obtained government permits to remove soil from the mound to use as fertilizer (sebbakh). Archaeological sites provided an excellent source of sebbakh because decomposed organic debris creates a soil very rich in nitrogen. The work of the sebbakhin at archaeological mounds did, however, have the effect of stimulating interest in the sites they dug; for in the course of their removal operations, ancient artifacts came to light and many of them found their way onto the antiquities market. Among the most common finds were papyri, which were soon coveted by both collectors and museums. These papyri inspired two English scholars to undertake the first serious archaeological work that had ever been done at Graeco-Roman sites in Egypt. In 1895 Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt arrived in the northeastern Fayoum with the intention of excavating for these valued documents.(1)

It was no coincidence that the first expedition of Grenfell and Hunt focused on the mound at Kom Aushim which they were able to identify, on the basis of the papyri they recovered there, as the site of ancient Karanis.(2) The mound, however, which had long been fertile ground for the local sebbakhin, appeared to them to have been "hopelessly plundered to justify a long stay."(3) The following year they shifted their area of inquiry farther to the south, to Oxyrhynchus. Here Greek papyri "harvested by the basketful."One sensational discovery - a leaf from a hitherto unknown work, Logia Iesu (The Sayings of Our Lord) (4)- provided the impetus in 1897 for the Egypt Exploration Society in London to form a special Graeco-Roman branch, devoted primarily to the excavation and publication of papyri.(5)

Throughout the next two decades archaeological investigation at Graeco-Roman sites in Egypt continued to focus almost exclusively the acquisition of these documents. Grenfell and Hunt described their approach to excavation as one which insured that other artifacts would be virtually ignored: "method of digging for papyri in a town site presents some parallels to that of gold-mining. The gold-seeker follows a vein of quartz, while the papyrus-digger has to follow a stratum... of what the natives call afsh..... The gold-digger does not look for gold where there is no quartz, and similarly the papyrus-seeker may practically disregard any other kind of earth than afsh. Objects of stone, wood, or pottery he may find elsewhere, but without afsh he will hardly ever find papyrus.(6)

Archaeological excavations of Graeco-Roman sites remained tied largely to the pursuit of papyri well into the early 1920's. Meanwhile, at sites of Egypt's earlier and more renowned Dynastic period, archaeologists were working with a different end in mind - that of amassing a wide range of objects. In this they were pursuing a goal which had been established by Sir Flinders Petrie in a series of excavations between 1881 and 1891. For Petrie the aim of excavating was to supply "and reality ... to what we only knew as yet on paper."(7) His great achievement lay in his recognition of the fact that objects, as well as papyri, are a type of historical evidence. As Petrie observed, "trivial things may be of value, as giving a clue to something else. Generally it is better to keep some examples of everything.... It need hardly be said that every subject should be attended to; the excavator's business is not to study his own speciality only, but to collect as much material as possible for the use of other students. To neglect the subjects that interest him less is not only a waste of his opportunities, but a waste of such archaeological material as may never be equaled again. "(8)

Yet the objects which Petrie valued so highly were to a large extent seen by him and his contemporaries as ends in themselves, tokens of a past civilizations.(9) It remained for others to appreciate the importance of the context in which they had been found.

Against the backdrop of this approach to the recording of antiquity, a new idea began to emerge. In 1920, Francis W Kelsey, Professor of Latin Language and Literature, went to Egypt in order to acquire papyri for The University of Michigan. At Oxyrhynchus, in the company of B. P Grenfell, he observed the material remains of Graeco-Roman sites in the process of destruction at the hands of the sebbakhin. Upon inquiring what arrangements had been made to record and interpret the archaeology of the sites, he was told that not only was no effort being expended to document the archaeological record but that previous work in Egypt had almost totally neglected the cultural background of the Graeco-Roman period in favor of that of the Dynastic era. Ultimately, Kelsey determined that an expedition must be organized and that "obligation to fill so serious a gap in the knowledge of this important part of the Graeco-Roman world must rest upon Americans. "(10)

In 1923 a grant from Horace H. Rackham enabled the newly formed Committee on Near East Research at The University of Michigan to plan trial excavations in Egypt. The search for a suitable site took place during the fall of 1924. On the first of November a team inspected the "hopelessly plundered" mound at Kom Aushim. Since the visit of Grenfell and Hunt the local sebbakhin had been continuously removing soil and in the intervening thirty years they had completely obliterated the center of the mound. Nevertheless their work had revealed large residential areas of the town which looked promising to the Michigan team. Permits were obtained, and work began in the first months of 1925.

Even in the first season, Karanis proved richer than had been anticipated both in the wealth of objects and the extent of the structures preserved. Inspired by this abundance of evidence, Professor Kelsey, in a memorandum to the Committee on Near East Research, stated the ambitious goals of the University's expedition. These were no less than, "... the reconstruction of the environment of life in the Graeco-Roman period ... [and the] increase of exact knowledge rather than the amassing of collections. "(11)

It was inevitable that the concerns of the Michigan team would differ from those of previous excavators, both in the nature of the objects they considered worthwhile and the importance of the context in which those objects were found. Mirroring the interest in the totality of the environment even specimens of cereals, fruits and vegetables as well as mammalian and aquatic animal remains were saved. Since earlier explorers of Egypt's past pursued other goals, the methods by which they had excavated were hardly applicable to the Karanis investigations. New, comprehensive recording techniques had to be developed to answer questions which had never before been asked.

A system was designed to enable the excavators to trace the evolution both of the town as a whole and of the individual structures within it. Prior to actual digging, the mound was surveyed and subdivided into seven large areas; and upon each area a grid of squares thirty-five meters to a side was superimposed. Within this framework plans and sections of the site were drawn. As excavation proceeded five discrete levels of occupation were distinguished - the uppermost and most recent was designated Level A, and letters B through E were assigned as earlier levels were identified. For each of the levels in the seven areas, plans and long sections were made. As a result, the structures throughout the site could be traced in detail; the superimposition of houses and any subsequent modifications could be seen.

Within every occupation level each house was explored room by room. The excavators kept notebooks of progress in the field, recording finds and observations as they occurred. Each artifact, as it was found, was identified by a label designating its level, house and room and was assigned a permanent number in the camp registry. On occasion, experts in the conservation of archaeological materials were consulted in an effort to provide appropriate care and treatment for the excavated finds. Detailed photographs were taken of every house and group of artifacts as they were excavated layer by layer. In addition, movies were filmed of excavations in progress; these alone provided thousands of images of the city as it came to light.

The University of Michigan's excavations at Karanis marked a turning point in the study and exploration of Graeco-Roman Egypt; and their importance for the writing of social and economic history was quickly appreciated. In 1926 Mikhail Rostovtzeff published his monumental Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, the first work to acknowledge the life of the common people as a significant component of the study of ancient history. In the preface, Rostovtzeff lamented the fact that he was unable to procure illustrations of objects of daily life, " . . products of industrial activity, such as pots, lamps, glassware, remains of textiles, jewels, metal work and so forth,"for he regarded such illustrations "an essential part of the book, as essential, in fact, as the notes and the quotations from literary or documentary sources."(13) Three years later as a result of the Karanis excavations, the situation had changed. In 1928, when a German translation of Rostovtzeff's pioneering work was being prepared, the author requested permission to publish plans of the Karanis houses and photographs of some of the objects found in them. In the new edition, Rostovtzeff wrote, "to this complete investigation ... the everyday life of one of the characteristic villages of the Fayoum is now illustrated in all its details."(14)

Excavations continued at Karanis for eleven seasons. Among the papyri found were documents that illuminate a wide variety of the financial, legal, political and social transactions of the residents. But in addition, the excavators had recovered tens of thousands of artifacts yielding a complete range of material goods: furniture, foodstuffs, tablewares, religious dedications, tools, toys, hair combs, harnesses, clothing - and more. At last, students of the past could observe the "of life"in a Graeco-Roman town.


Publishing the Find

During the course of the excavations and at their close, the Egyptian Department of Antiquities allocated to The University of Michigan an enormous number of objects constituting a representative selection of the finds.(15) These objects, numbering close to 44,000, account for nearly half of the collections presently housed in the Kelsey Museum. The hundreds of papyri found at Karanis are not even included in this tally, for they have been transferred to the Rare Book Collection of the University's Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. Once the material evidence was in hand, an active program of publication ensued. Even before the field work at Karanis had ended, reports and monographs began to appear. Arthur Boak and Enoch Peterson produced topographical and architectural reports for the seasons of 1924 through 1931 and Lillian Wilson published a selection of textiles in 1933.(16) Soon thereafter, in 1936, Donald Harden's fundamental study of the Roman glass appeared, and articles by numerous scholars followed in rapid succession. Throughout the 1940's and 1950's and into the 1960's studies of papyri and ostraka by Herbert Youtie, Orsamus Pearl, John Winter and Elinor Husselman and of the coins by Rolfe Haatvedt and Enoch Peterson unleashed a veritable flood of information not only concerning Karanis itself, but the whole of Egypt and its relationship to the Empire of Rome.(17) The University of Michigan moved to the forefront of scholarship in the field of Graeco-Roman Egypt, for which these studies have become standard works of reference.

The care and cataloging of the finds from Karanis, along with the organization of the extensive number of records of the excavation itself, posed a formidable task for those who were in charge of the Museum of Archaeology. Thus, for a number of years the pace of publication slackened. Recently, however, under the inspired leadership of John Griffiths Pedley, current Director of the Kelsey Museum, the cataloging and publication of Karanis materials has once again become a major focus of energy and activity. Thanks to generous grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, the objects from Karanis have now been fully entered into the Museum's card catalogue system. In the revitalized Kelsey Museum Studies series three monographs on Karanis have appeared within the past five years: one on lamps by Louise Shier, another on the topography and architecture by Elinor Husselman, and a third, on pottery, by Barbara Johnson; and others are being prepared.(18) The Museum's exhibits program has also fostered publication of bodies of material from Karanis. In 1978, Guardians of the Nile focused attention on the sculptures; in 1980, The Art of the Ancient Weaver included selected textiles and weavers' equipment; and in 1982, Wondrous Glass featured nearly two hundred whole vessels and fragments from the site.(19) At the same time, a steady stream of publications on Karanis papyri has continued; between 1971 and 1977 several more volumes have appeared.(20) Much more remains to be done, The University of Michigan is moving to fulfill its long-standing obligation to this exceptional site.


The Exhibition

Given this renewed focus on the material from Karanis, the time has come for an exhibition which offers an overview of the excavations and their results. A comprehensive exhibition has not been attempted since 1947 when Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule presented papyri and objects from Karanis and two other related sites - Terenouthis and Soknopaiou Nesos - which were explored briefly by the University excavators in Egypt during the 1930s. This exhibition occupied the entire first floor of the Kelsey Museum and documented in great detail all phases of an individual's life from early childhood to the grave.

The present exhibition takes a somewhat different approach to essentially the same theme. Viewed exclusively from the perspective of the town of Karanis, the exhibition centers upon the three aspects of daily life which the Michigan excavations revealed in greatest detail: earning a living, maintaining a home, and worshipping the gods. Limited to less than a quarter of the space used before, this exhibition can pretend neither to do justice to the full potential of these themes that the Karanis collections themselves would allow nor to represent adequately the results that the excavators and various subsequent scholars have attained. Rather, the intention is to evoke for the visitor a vivid impression of the "environment of life" at Karanis and to convey the spirit expressed in the eloquent words of Enoch Peterson, who directed the excavations from 1926 to 1935: "have seen the letters these people wrote to one another, the accounts they kept in business transactions, the kinds of food they ate, the grain they planted in their irrigated plots of land, the cloth they wove to make their garments, the wooden boxes in which they stored their treasures, the glass that must have been highly cherished, the pottery that served as common household ware, the toys that delighted the hearts of their children, the lamps that gave such feeble light and so much smoke, staining black the niches in their housewalls, and the paintings, all of some religious significance, with which they sometimes adorned their houses. We have seen the very temples in which they worshipped, now in ruins, mute reminders of a cult that even then was in decay. The people who wrote and read the papyri, which have become so valuable as source material for the history of this period, are revealed to us as a living people in a living town.(21) One may stand in awe of the golden coffins of the pharaonic kings and marvel at the achievements of the master builders and craftsmen of the royal courts, but to ponder the things that reveal the concerns of the common man of ancient times is to touch the thread of continuity that links antiquity to life in our own day.




(1) Hunt, 121-28.

(2) Grenfell, Hunt and Hogarth, 21.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Turner, 161-62.

(5) Ibid., 163.

(6) Grenfell, Hunt and Hogarth, 24.

(7) Petrie, 1892, 3.

(8) Ibid., 164.

(9) Drower, 33.

(10) Kelsey, 17.

(11) Ibid., 26.

(12) Rostovtzeff, 1926, xiv.

(13) Rostovtzeff, second ed., 1931, pp. 289-91, pls. LIV and LV.

(14) Butler, 6-7, reports on the Karanis accessions through 1929.

(15) Boak and Peterson, 1931; Boak, 1933; Wilson, 1933.

(16) Yeivin, 1934; Harden, 1936; Boak, 1944-45 and 1947; Husselman, 1952, 1953 and 1958, are among those cited in the bibliography at the end of this catalogue.

(17) Youtie and Pearl, 1939 and 1944; Youtie and Winter, 1951; Haatvedt and Peterson, 1964, among others. See also Geremek, whose study of Karanis depends significantly upon the work of Michigan scholars.

(18) Shier, 1978; Husselman, 1979; Johnson, 1981.

(19) Gazda, et al.; Root with the assistance of McCoy.

(20) Including Husselman, 1971; Riad and Shelton, 1975 and Shelton, 1977.

(21) "Unearthing the Past," p. 9.

Copyright 1983, 1997, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan. All Rights Reserved.