Luther College student discovers ancient documents - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Luther College student finds documents dating back thousands of years

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A sophomore at Luther College made an incredible discovery in January: documents, thousands of years old.

"Nobody knew they were there, " said Philip Freeman, Professor of Classics at the Decorah, Iowa college. "They'd been sitting in this box for decades."

Some things you expect to find on a college campus, but not this.

"Some ancient Egyptian papyri," Freeman said. "These are documents that are almost 2000 years old … Very few of them survive, and most of them are not in very good condition."

The papyri are woven from reeds, and have ancient Greek writing on them. They were hidden away in a basement archive at Luther.

"We were going through every single folder of every single box of our 3000 linear foot collection," said Sasha Griffin, Digital Archivist. "Which is a lot of work, yes."

It was during that search that sophomore Brittany Anderson found the documents.

"Part of it is sort of surreal, because you don't really expect to find first century A.D. papyrus in the library of a basement in Iowa," she said.

The papyri were filed away in the box of a long-gone professor, Orlando Qualley. Freeman believes Qualley brought them back from Egypt in the 1920s. Freeman said they're incredibly well preserved. Modern papyrus reproductions grow brittle and decay after only a few years.

Freeman said there's much much to learn from documents like these, which offer a first-hand look at what life was like.

"They can be anything from tax receipts to ancient pornography," Freeman said. "They've found just about everything you can imagine." There were nine fragments found in all, but one stands out in particular, from 250 A.D. It's called a libellus, and can be linked to the execution of an ancient pope.

"A libellus was a receipt issued to people that did sacrifice to the gods," Freeman said. "It was a kind of ‘get out jail free' card."

He said there are only about 40 known libellus in the world, so this is a huge opportunity to interact with the past.

"It's exciting for us," Freeman said. "It's a chance for our students to see a piece of history."

Looking forward, the Luther archives team is researching how to better preserve the documents, and plans to post scans online so others can study them.

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