Europe's Oldest "Book" Read With High-Tech Imaging

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The scroll had been buried with its owner, a wealthy Macedonian nobleman, after both were burned on a funeral pyre. The book was charred but not consumed by the flames.

The otherwise intact papyrus was unearthed in 1962 near the northern town of Thessaloniki (map of Greece).

Roger Macfarlane, a classicist at Brigham Young, explains that a series of fortunate circumstances, including the scroll's near destruction, allowed it to survive for so long.

Papyruses usually can't endure the vagaries of the European climate, he says.

"It was scorched and dried out [from the funeral pyre]. The carbonization of the papyrus led to its preservation," he said.

"If someone had taken this and put it on a shelf in a library, it wouldn't be around today. None of the [other Greek] papyri from the fourth or fifth centuries B.C. have survived."

The scroll's discovery was also a result of careful excavation—the manuscript had been laid on top of its owner's tomb rather than inside it.

"It took some very careful archaeology to sift through the ground and find this very fragile papyrus and preserve it in an [intact] state" Macfarlane said.

"I think if it had been dropped, it probably would have crumbled into thousands of pieces."

Cult of Orpheus

Dirk Obbink is classics scholar at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who has been working with the Derveni papyrus since the 1980s.

The text, Obbink said, is "a philosophical treatise about the nature of the gods and the soul."

He describes a complex document in which the lines between religion, philosophy, and science are often blurred.

"The author considers several authoritative texts … and explains how modern scientific beliefs can be seen even in those older writings to expound his physical view of the world," Obbink said.

The text includes reproduced portions of a poem and original commentary on the poem's content. Both reference the creation of the universe from the viewpoint of the cult of Orpheus.

Orpheus was the legendary Greek musical hero who sailed with the Argonauts and charmed Hades, king of the underworld, with his skill.

The mythical figure gave rise to a cult of religious beliefs that stressed a single creator god rather than the familiar Greek pantheon.

Supporting this idea, the scroll's author suggests that female deities such as Hera—queen of the gods—and Demeter—goddess of the harvest—are "the same she" and even equates the goddesses with the king of the gods, Zeus.

"Some scholars see this [monotheistic belief] as a predecessor to Christianity, a protodevelopment of Christian principles," Brigham Young's Macfarlane said.

"I personally don't see it that way, but it's an interesting interpretation."

The papyrus also has dramatically boosted scholars' understanding of early Greek thinkers, none of whose original work survives.

"We're lucky if we get a [reproduction] quotation from a Roman-period author, and that's usually a lousy paraphrase in the language of the day," Obbink said.

As for the original author, many names have been suggested, but no one really knows the ancient thinker's identity.

"The chances of him having been one of Anaxagoras' circle is pretty good, I'd say," Obbink said.

Anaxagoras was a fifth-century B.C. Athenian philosopher believed to have taught Socrates.

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