Washington, July 24 : Almost 70 pieces from Stanford University's papyri collection, which consist of ancient Egyptian texts, are being analyzed after being kept in storage since the 1920s.
The texts, written on papyrus during the Ptolemaic Era, were discarded and later recycled into panels and masks that covered mummified bodies.
They're torn and faded and have the woven texture of a flattened Triscuit.
More than 2,000 years ago, the texts were nothing but scraps of garbage - discarded documents, useless contracts and unwanted letters that were recycled into material needed to plaster over mummies, like some precursor to paper-mache.
Now they are priceless clues to everyday life in the Ptolemaic Era, bits of history recently cleaned and sandwiched between pieces of glass so researchers at Stanford could begin translating the Greek writing and Egyptian script while studying the worn papyrus it is scribbled on.
The texts, collectively called papyri, were donated to Stanford in the 1920s by an alumnus who bought them from an antiquities dealer in London.
They've been overlooked by generations of faculty who haven't focused on papyrology, according to Joe Manning, an associate professor of classics at Stanford.
"You cannot ignore this," said Manning. "This is the raw material of history. If you're interested in social history or economic history or legal history, you need this material," he added.
But deciphering something written on papyrus between 300 B.C. and 30 B.C. isn't easy.
About 70 texts in Stanford's collection of several hundred papyri were taken from storage and brought to the university's conservation lab in April.
They were soaked in water to wash away the remains of an adhesive material applied to them for use as cartonnage-material molded into masks and panels to cover the mummified bodies of humans and animals.
The texts were then mounted in thin glass frames, allowing for easy handling and close inspection. The ink, essentially a waterproof mixture of soot and resin, is faded but mostly legible.
The specimens are far from complete documents. Peeled from mummies by archaeologists and grave robbers, the once well-kept records now come with gaping holes. any are fragments of larger pieces and offer a few hints about a transaction or contract.
Around 18 students from 15 universities around the world working this month at Stanford to interpret some of the university's papyri and publish their findings.
Working with modern technology to make sense of the ancient texts, the students use laptops to tap into databases of papyrological information maintained by Duke and Columbia universities.
After the students enter individual words or phrases gleaned from the texts in front of them, the databases help determine whether the pieces in Stanford's collection are related to any previously published texts.