Some remnants are tiny, scarcely one by two centimeters. Even the biggest pieces aren’t that big, stretching some seventeen by eight centimeters.

They are treasures just the same. The Papyrus Collection at Washington State University Libraries in Pullman holds 26 fragments in Arabic, Coptic, and Greek⁠—edges fraying, fibers showing, peppered with holes⁠—dating from 332 and 1 BCE to the fourth to seventh centuries AD or later.

Two are from a certain Ptolemaios. One is among the collection’s largest fragments and contains more lines of text than most of the other pieces.

“In this letter the sender … writes to his father Tryphon to inform him that a man named Galates is bringing a letter to him and that Galates then intends to meet with the strategus. Before the letter breaks off Ptolemaios requests that his father kindly receive Galates,” explains Lincoln H. Blumell, associate professor in the department of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, in “A Second-Century AD Letter of Introduction in the Washington State University Collection.”

The strategus is an ancient Greek officer. Blumell theorizes “perhaps the request had something to do with Tryphon putting in a good word to the strategus on behalf of Galates. If such is the case, it could also be supposed that Tryphon is a person of some standing, since he had the ear of the strategus.”

“These rare antiquities were the media for the written word of their day,” says Gayle O’Hara, manuscripts librarian. “They are a vital part of the trajectory of human communication and provide rich context to our place in the world.”


Web extra

Slideshow: The Papyrus Collection at WSU

On the web

Papyrus fragments at WSU: Images and descriptions at the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley