Nearly a century ago, excavators at the University of Michigan envisioned achieving a deeper, contextual understanding of ancient life by uniting the study of both textual and archaeological material in their findspots. They selected Karanis, which had yielded a considerable number of papyri and ostraca (pottery sherds bearing writing) that had been purchased on the antiquities market by various Western universities and musea, but also had standing architecture and well-preserved finds. The site offered an example of exceptional archaeological preservation. Since the climate of the Fayum Region of Egypt is exceedingly dry, few bacteria or microorganisms exist to break down buried organic artifacts. This dry climate has preserved structures and artifacts that ordinarily decay through natural processes at other archaeological sites. Thus, a more complete assemblage of finds exists at Karanis than elsewhere, and even though parts of the site of Karanis had been previously destroyed by residents of the modern town of Kom Aushim, its relatively intact state makes the site of interest both to the specialist researcher and to members of the general public.
Under the direction of Professor Francis W. Kelsey, the University of Michigan excavated at Karanis from 1924 to 1935. The Michigan team investigated many structures in use throughout the town’s history, including those they identified as soldiers’ barracks, granaries, baths, houses, temples, and pottery workshops. Individual structures were explored room by room and level by level, and individual finds registered by structure, room, and level. These excavations have played a major role in furthering the study of ancient Egypt due to the exceptional preservation of artifacts in a very dry climate. Two features distinguish them from contemporary investigations: they involved unusually detailed investigations of houses, in addition to public buildings and cemeteries, which were the usual focus of archaeological interest at the time; they also paid more careful attention to documenting finds than many contemporary projects. As a result, the excavations at Karanis enable researchers to reconstruct many aspects of the lives of the inhabitants of this agricultural town dating from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE.
At the conclusion of the excavations, materials from Karanis were divided between Egypt and the University of Michigan. Those now in Michigan form the centerpiece of the Kelsey Museum’s well-known collections of artifacts and documents from the ancient Mediterranean world. They comprise 46,415 artifacts, 5,248 archival photographs, 4 hours of motion picture footage, as well as maps, notebooks, unpublished manuscripts, and other archival material — in all about 44% of the Museum’s holdings. The Papyrology Collection of the University of Michigan Library contains another 168 finds (consisting of 2,603 individually catalogued papyri and wax tablets).