The nine papyri had remained hidden in a cardboard box for decades and were part of a collection belonging to the late Orlando W. Qualley, a professor at the school and a member of a University of Michigan excavation at Karanis in the 1920s. Qualley's letters and journals were donated to the college in the 1980s.
The papyri date to the first to fifth centuries A.D. One document, a libellus dated to the year 250 and reign of Emperor Decius, is what was given to Roman citizens to confirm that a sacrifice to the gods had been made.
Christians were ordered by the emperor to make sacrifices to the Roman Gods and Goddesses as well as the emperor, who was considered a living God. Christians who refused to perform sacrifices were arrested, tortured, and executed. Pope Fabian was one who refused to sacrifice and was subsequently killed by Roman authorities.
Philip Freeman, Qualley Chair of Ancient Languages at Luther College, told The Decorah Newspapers, “As soon as they are properly preserved, we hope to display all the papyri in our library for everyone to see. They provide a great opportunity for our students to examine a genuine piece of the ancient world. Luther College is incredibly fortunate to have in its possession the Qualley papyri, especially the libellus, a rare and invaluable find from the early centuries of Christian history,"
The papyri are written in ancient Greek and measure from 5 to 20 centimeters in length. They are in fairly good shape, but all of them are fragmentary and fragile.