Papyri were first acquired by the University of Michigan in 1920 through the initiative of Francis W. Kelsey, who traveled to Egypt in the spring of that year with B. P. Grenfell of Oxford (England) to purchase papyri with joint funds supplied by the British Museum, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Michigan. In the following year, E. A. Wallis Budge, Keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum, at the request of Professor Kelsey, bought another lot of papyri for the contributing institutions, among which were now included the universities of Oslo and Geneva and Cornell University. From this time until his death in 1927 Kelsey was untiring in his efforts to augment the Michigan collection, and since his death funds, donated by interested alumni or appropriated for the purpose by the Board of Regents, have been used to acquire additional papyri as they have become available. Moreover, the many papyri which were discovered at Kôm Aushim and Dimé in the Fayoum in the course of excavations conducted by the University of Michigan in Egypt from 1924 to 1935 were loaned by the Egyptian government to the University for study and publication.
The collection now comprises 4,832 inventory numbers, and 2,090 additional numbers have been assigned for reference purposes to the papyri from Kôm Aushim and Dimé. In the early years each piece was given a separate number, but subsequently the rapid growth of the collection made it advisable to form groups of the less significant fragments, and only complete pieces and the more important fragments received separate numbers. The total includes a certain number of waxed tablets, of which several are remarkably well preserved.
Greek is the language of the large majority of the texts, but other languages are represented in varying proportions — Demotic, 150; Coptic, 500; Arabic, 150; and Latin, 50. Approximately 500 papyri have literary texts, and these include classical authors, with Homer predominating, Biblical and patristic authors, and fragments from works of magical, mathematical, astrological, astronomical, and medical content (see Part IV: Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures). The rest of the papyri bear official documents, petitions, legal instruments, accounts, lists, memoranda, receipts, and private letters. They range in date from the third century b.c. to the eighth century a.d.
The collection is housed in the General Library of the University but is under the care of a curator of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Many papyri have been mounted between sheets of glass so that they may be studied without risk of injury; most of them, however, are kept within folders and are preserved from exposure in steel cases. Frequently, with the permission of the librarian, papyri have been exhibited for interested visitors and members of learned societies.
The Humanistic Series of the University of Michigan Studies at present includes Page 1476eleven volumes containing editions of papyri. Numerous other texts have been published in periodicals. Among the more interesting and important groups are the following: more than one hundred papyri from the well-known Zenon archive of the third century b.c.; about two hundred documents of the first century a.d. from the ruins of the record office of the ancient village of Tebtunis; thirty well-preserved leaves of a third-century codex of the Epistles of Paul; thirty-one leaves of a third-century codex of the Shepherd of Hermas; two tax rolls of unusual length, which were compiled at the ancient Karanis in the second century a.d.; a number of Greek and Coptic magical texts; a poorly preserved but valuable Coptic codex containing Ecclesiastes and the Gospel of John in the Fayoumic dialect; a remarkably fine group of Coptic private letters, and a small group of large and for the most part well-preserved Byzantine documents in Greek and Coptic from Aphrodito.