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Thursday, May 30, 2024

The El-Hiba papyrus fragment: Ancient Greek tax records

Oldest-surviving book fragment discovered: A 2,300-year-old Egyptian papyrus unveils ancient Greek tax calculations.

In a remarkable archaeological find, experts have identified a small fragment of a notebook that dates back approximately 2,300 years, making it a strong contender for the title of the oldest-surviving book fragment ever discovered. Unearthed in Egypt’s El-Hiba necropolis in 1902 and currently housed at Graz University in Austria, this papyrus fragment sheds light on the early origins of codex-formatted books and unveils intriguing details about ancient Greek tax calculations.

Unveiling the Ancient Treasure

The diminutive fragment, measuring 15cm by 25cm, was initially excavated at the El-Hiba necropolis and has remained relatively unknown until now. Expert analysis suggests that it was once part of a “codex,” a book format that gained popularity during the early years of the Roman Empire. The fragment’s transformation into cartonnage, a material used to encase mummies, further highlights its journey through time.

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Glimpse into the Past

Dated to approximately 260 B.C., this ancient piece of papyrus provides a unique glimpse into the administrative aspects of life during that era. The writings on the fragment consist of calculations related to beer and oil taxes, inscribed in a form of ancient Greek. Such meticulous record-keeping offers valuable insights into the economic practices and taxation systems of ancient civilizations.

Stroke of Luck

The discovery of the El-Hiba papyrus is credited to the sharp eye of Theresa Zammit Lupi, a conservator specializing in antique written materials. Recognizing the fragment’s peculiar characteristics, including a central fold, pinholes for thread binding, and text within clearly defined margins, Lupi realized that she had stumbled upon something exceptional. This stroke of luck has now opened doors to potential further discoveries, as experts have gained valuable knowledge on how to identify similar traits in other ancient documents.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Past

Erich Renhart, co-director of Graz University Library’s special collections, believes that the El-Hiba papyrus fragment could be just the tip of the iceberg. With the newfound ability to identify these codex fragments, scholars can now systematically search for more hidden treasures within collections worldwide. Papyrus, being an affordable writing material, was extensively used in ancient times, leading experts to speculate that numerous fragments like the El-Hiba papyrus may still be waiting to be found.

Preserving History

The delicate nature of ancient manuscripts necessitates careful conservation efforts to ensure their long-term survival. Thanks to the expertise of conservators like Theresa Zammit Lupi, this invaluable fragment has been meticulously preserved for generations to come. By protecting and studying these ancient texts, we gain a deeper understanding of our collective past and the rich cultural tapestry of civilizations long gone.

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The discovery of the El-Hiba papyrus fragment, possibly the oldest-surviving book fragment known to date, marks a significant milestone in our exploration of ancient history. With its intriguing content and invaluable insights into the evolution of codex-formatted books, this artifact offers a unique window into the administrative practices and economic systems of ancient Greece. As scholars embark on a systematic search for similar fragments, we can only imagine the wealth of knowledge that lies waiting to be unraveled, giving us a richer understanding of our shared human heritage.