Karanis was a Greco-Roman town located in Egypt's Fayoum Region. Founded in the third century BCE, the town remained inhabited until the fifth century CE. A small population of Roman mercenaries lived in the primarily agrarian town, where sustenance farmers produced crops such as wheat, barley, olives, figs, and walnuts. Alexandria, one of the major centers of Roman trade, lay a mere 124 miles to the north of Karanis, making this small, rural town a gateway to more populated and urban areas.
The site was primarily excavated by a team from the University of Michigan, lead by Francis W. Kelsey, in the 1920s. However, Kelsey was not the first person to show interest in Karanis; local farmers had been obtaining government permits to remove nitrogen-rich soil from the site to use as fertilizer (sebbakh) up until the early twentieth century, and the papyri they inevitably unearthed caught the attention of English scholars Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, who completed minor excavations of the site in 1895 before moving to a different site. As a result, Kelsey and his team were forced to work around whole swaths of the town that had been destroyed by earlier activities -- most notably, an area right in the center of the Karanis mound. The Michigan team completed a wonderfully thorough excavation of the areas that remained intact, cataloging each artifact and making careful note of where exactly each item was discovered. This provides crucial information to archeologists and classicists who wish to consider artifacts in their original contexts.
The Karanis Housing Project seeks to bring this valuable information into the twenty-first century by digitizing the dig and making a comprehensive list of finds easily accessible and searchable online. While still in its early stages, the model developed based on data from Karanis will eventually be applied to other excavations, providing a way to analyze finds and query specific artifacts that is far more user-friendly than sifting through boxes of field notes.