The 3rd-4th century CE fragments were found in 1927 during the University of Michigan excavations at Karanis, an ancient town in the north-east corner of the Fayum in Egypt. The site was remarkably well-documented for its time and yielded a rich collection of artifacts, many of which are now housed in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.
During the years 1924–1935 the University of Michigan carried out archaeological excavations in the Fayum, an oasis located west of the Nile river. Professor Francis Wiley Kelsey pioneered new scientific excavation techniques to gather detailed archaeological evidence.
The history of the Fayum started over two millennia ago. In the 3rd century BCE a waterway from the Nile was built to irrigate the land. The steady water supply transformed the Fayum into an important agricultural region.
Many villages and towns developed in this area. Karanis (Kom Aushim) occupies a unique place in the history of Graeco-Roman Egypt. Active settlement of this town spans seven centuries, from the middle of the third century BCE to the end of the fifth century CE. Through the Michigan excavations we see a microcosm of life as it was lived by ordinary people in Egypt under Greek and Roman rule.
The spiral papyrus fragments were discovered during the 1927 excavation season in house C56b (map). The find spot is dated to the 3rd-4th century CE and is now housed in the Michigan Papyrology Collection as acc. 5143c. The papyrus shows an intriguing design of repeating spirals drawn with a brush by a skilled hand. It is an extraordinary find, as drawings and paintings are rare. Apart from the papyrus drawing house C56 yielded a large number of private objects from daily life, including weaving implements and textile finds.
The term papyrus further refers to the documents written on papyrus paper, the so called papyri. The study of these ancient documents is called papyrology.
Papyrus is actually an aquatic flowering plant growing in Egypt. Since Pharaonic times ancient Egyptians used it for many purposes including manufacture of a writing material. To make a sheet, the pith of the plant stem was cut into long thin stripes, which were then laid out in two layers in a perpendicular order. After pressing and drying papyrus sheets were obtained. Several of theses sheets clued together formed a scroll, which was the standard form of book. During the 4th century the scroll was gradually replaced by the codex, which is similar to a book.
Gazda, E. K., & Wilfong, T. G. (2004). Karanis, an Egyptian Town in Roman Times: Discoveries of the University of Michigan Expedition to Egypt (1924-1935). Ann Arbor.
Husselman, E. M., & Peterson, E. E. (1979). Karanis Excavations of the University of Michigan in Egypt, 1928-1935: Topography and Architecture: A Summary of the Reports of the Director, Enoch E. Peterson. Ann Arbor.