for National Geographic News
More than 2,000 years ago, a roll of papyrus with extensive writings was enshrouded with a body that was mummified for preservation. The scroll is the oldest surviving example of a Greek poetry book, according to scholars who have been studying it.
They say the document's content and unusually fine condition make it the most significant discovery in Greek literature in several decades.
The papyrus bears 112 short poems called epigrams. The author is thought to be a prominent writer in the third century B.C. named Posidippus.
The ancient book came to light several years ago, but determining its origin has been difficult because little is known about the Egyptian mummy from which the scroll came.
The mummy, which dates from the second century B.C., is in a private collection. Scholars at the University of Milan acquired the scroll so it could be examined and studied. Next month, more than 60 experts on papyrus writings, Hellenistic and Roman literature, art history, and Ptolemaic history will meet at the University of Cincinnati to present the findings of their research.
Why would a scroll of Greek poetry be bundled with an Egyptian mummy?
Kathryn Gutzwiller, a professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati and the conference organizer, said the practice was not unusual for that period. Greek and Egyptian cultures became intertwined after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Posidippus came from Pella in Macedonia and was associated with the Ptolemies, the Greek rulers who inherited Egypt after Alexander's death.
In the third century B.C., "mummies were placed in a kind of papier-mâché casing, for which old papyri were sometimes used," said Gutzwiller.
She and others say the scroll is an important find for a number of reasons.
The Posidippus papyrus is unusual for its length and the well-preserved state of the remaining text. Although papyrus scrolls from Egypt are the major source of new texts of ancient Greek literature, one of such a high quality is rare, Gutzwiller noted.
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