July 15, 2018
Scientists Finally Decipher The Mystery Of The 2,000-Year-Old Basel Papyrus

The University of Basel in Switzerland boasts an impressive collection of 65 papyri in five languages. Though all of these documents are an important testament to the past, one of them has always stood out as an oddity.

This famous Basel papyrus has been an enigma for several hundred years. Part of a rare pair thought to have come from the art collection of Basilius Amerbach, the document is more ancient than the rest of scrolls.

While the other parchments were acquired by the university in 1900 for its classical studies curriculum, this particular papyrus (and its sibling) dates back to the 16th century and "has puzzled generations of researchers," notes the academic institution.

This is because this unusual papyrus, written in Greek, had mirror text on both sides, with the letters going the opposite direction that they should.

The surprising explanation for its peculiar aspect has now finally been revealed, as a team of scientists from the Swiss university announced they have cracked the secret of the 2,000-year-old Basel papyrus.

After examining the entire papyrus collection for the past three years in an effort to transcribe, annotate, translate, and ultimately digitalize these precious parchments, professor of ancient history Sabine Huebner teamed up with the Basel Digital Humanities Lab to analyze the 16th-century document.

Its secret was finally unlocked when the researchers looked at the Basel papyrus under infrared and ultraviolet light and saw that it was not a single sheet of text after all, but "several layers bonded together with a sort of medieval glue," Huebner told Atlas Obscura.

Basel papyrus.
University of Basel

"This is a sensational discovery," said Huebner. "The majority of papyri are documents such as letters, contracts and receipts. This is a literary text, however, and they are vastly more valuable."

Once the document's true nature was established, the team called in a specialist in papyrus restoration to peel the layers apart so that they could read and try to identify the text.

"We can now say that it's a medical text from late antiquity that describes the phenomenon of 'hysterical apnea,'" Huebner explained. "We therefore assume that it is either a text from the Roman physician Galen, or an unknown commentary on his work."

The origin of the 2,000-year-old papyrus was confirmed after the scientists noticed some similarities between the mysterious document and the renowned papyrus collection in Ravenna, Italy.

Just like the Basel papyrus, which the team believes was probably used for bookbinding back in the Middle Ages — when the text would have been easier to come by and recycling the physical support material wouldn't have been a problem, notes Atlas Obscura — the Ravenna papyri also went through a process of medieval recycling.

"These include many antique manuscripts from Galen, which were later used as palimpsests and written over," states the university.

In fact, the other Amerbach at Basel, this time in Latin writing, is thought to have belonged to the same chancery of the Archdiocese of Ravenna, further strengthening the connection between these ancient scrolls.

A paper describing the findings and the history of the famous Basel papyrus is due for publication at the beginning of 2019.