Collection Spotlight: Karanis
Located in northern Egypt, the ancient agricultural city of Karanis was one of the first three archaeological projects commissioned by University of Michigan Professor of Latin Francis W. Kelsey, who was interested in finding authoritative examples of Latin language artifacts for his students. Local Sebakhin (farmers), as they removed mud bricks from the site for fertilizer, had been unearthing relics which made Karanis appealing as a potential archaeological cache.
Beginning in 1924 and spanning the course of a decade, Michigan-affiliated archaeologists worked to stem the flow of mud bricks out of the site and excavated a central portion of the city, including temples, granaries, houses, and streets. Karanis is located at the edge of the Fayoum Oasis (Egypt’s fertile “breadbasket”), with farmlands and roads to the south and desert to the north. The frequent sandstorms functioned as an ongoing mechanism of preservation; the inches of sand that incrementally buried the living city preserved lower levels of buildings and stashes of goods in a warm, dry layer for millennia, providing a rare treasure of intact fragile and organic artifacts. In addition to Papyri, the team recovered glassware, flatware, wooden toys and boxes, woven baskets, coins, and even olive pressings (a byproduct of olive oil production useful as fuel or animal feed).
The History of Art Visual Resources Collections has a collection of digitized slide images from both the time of excavation and a more recent trip to the site. Most of the black and white images were taken by the University’s first official photographer, George Swain (University of Michigan login required). Swain’s photographs document artifacts uncovered in situ, excavators on the job, general views of the site, and shots of excavated structures. Color photographs from a later trip (perhaps the late 70s), including shots of the surrounding environment and city ruins after decades of neglect and erosion, are believed to have been taken by Elinor Mullett Husselman. Also part of the collection are digitized maps, plans, and cross-sections of the city and specific structures.
UMDL # 07d116685
Distant view of Karanis excavation in progress. Photo by George Swain
Much of the material recovered from the University of Michigan’s excavation now resides at the University itself. Artifacts and many photos are at the Kelsey Museum, the Papyri is part of the Papyrology Collection at Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, and letters and photos from the expedition can be found at the Bentley Historical Library. Today, the Karanis site looks quite different from the photographs taken in the 20s and 30s. When the work at the site ended in 1935, the mud bricks of the excavated structures were left open to the elements and locals; many have been drastically eroded or dismantled for fertilizer. The stone of the North and South Temples alone remains unchanged.
The Michigan Dig House at the site, built in “the vernacular architecture of the early twentieth century,” housed the original Karanis expedition and subsequent archaeological projects throughout the past century, and today serves as a visitor center. New parts of Karanis and other ancient sites in the surrounding area are part of the Fayum Project, a joint research and preservation venture between UCLA, the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (RUG of the Netherlands) and the University of Auckland (New Zealand).