Oldest, Longest Ancient Egyptian Leather Manuscript Found

The 4000-year-old leather roll contains depictions of divine and supernatural beings.

The oldest Egyptian leather manuscript has been found in the shelves of the Egyptian museum in Cairo, where it was stored and forgotten for more than 70 years.

Dating from the late Old Kingdom to the early Middle Kingdom (2300-2000 B.C.), the roll measures about 2.5 meters(8.2 feet) and is filled with texts and colorful drawings of the finest quality.

"Taking into account that it was written on both sides, we have more than 5 meters (16.4 feet) of texts and drawings, making this the longest leather roll from ancient Egypt," Wael Sherbiny, the Belgium-based independent scholar who made the finding, told Discovery News.

Photos: Peering Inside an Ancient Papyrus

The first Egyptian to obtain his PhD in Egyptology in 2008 from the Leuven University in Belgium, Sherbiny specializes in the ancient Egyptian religious texts and is preparing the full publication of the unique leather roll.

He announced the finding at the recent International Congress of Egyptologists in Florence.

Nothing is known about the manuscript's origins. The French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo bought it from a local antiquities dealer sometime after the WWI. Later it was donated to the Cairo Museum, where it was unrolled shortly before the outbreak of the WWII.

"Since then it was stored in the museum and fell completely into oblivion," Sherbiny said.

Mysterious Manuscript Has Genuine Message

Basically a portable religious manuscript, the more than 4,000-year-old roll, contains depictions of divine and supernatural beings which predate the famous drawings found in the Book of the Dead manuscripts and the so-called Netherworld Books from the New Kingdom onwards (1550 B.C. onwards).

Religious spells, formulated in the first person singular, also abound there.

"They were likely recited by a priest," Sherbiny said.

It is known that priests used to carry leather rolls to reference while reciting sacred texts during religious rituals.

World's Oldest Koran Fragments Found in U.K.

Only six other portable manuscripts have survived from ancient Egypt and could possibly share a close date with the Cairo leather roll. All of them are papyri.

"Leather was considered a very precious writing material in ancient Egypt. It was the principal writing medium to record holy texts and great historic events as it was more practical than papyrus due to its flexibility and durability," Sherbiny said.

Such prestigious leather rolls, kept in the libraries and archives of temples, were also used as master copies from which cheaper copies were reproduced on papyrus. While papyri were preserved by Egypt's dry climate, leather objects quickly perished.

The Cairo roll was no exception: part of it was fragmented into very tiny pieces. Like in a jigsaw puzzle, Sherbiny pieced them all together.

Papyrus Reveals Ancient Egyptian Hangover Cure

The pieces formed a large pictorial-textual segment from the so-called Book of Two Ways, which is an illustrated composition containing temple rituals later adapted for the funerary use.

This composition is known to Egyptologists as it occurs on the floorboard of Middle Kingdom coffins (2055-1650 B.C.) from the necropolis of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt.

"Amazingly, the roll offers an even more detailed iconography than the Hermopolitan coffins in terms of texts and drawings," Sherbiny said.

Photos: Cryptic Codes Yet to Be Cracked

According to the scholar, the roll shows that parts of this composition were already known before their appearance on the Hermopolis coffins.

"It suggests that several segments of the composition were probably not the creation of Hermopolitan theologians, but had rather longer history of transmission before they were chosen to be used as coffin decorations," Sherbiny said.

He noted the leather roll also features religious drawings which had not been seen in coffins nor in any other monument until now.

"It shows that there was a large body of both religious iconography and texts, but unfortunately they did not reach us," Sherbiny concluded.

Image: Sherbiny working on a fragment of the leather roll in Cairo Museum. Credit: Wael Sherbiny.

Sherbiny working on a fragment of the leather roll in Cairo Museum.

Using a powerful X-ray procedure, researchers led by Vito Mocella, a physicist from the National Research Council's Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems (CNR-IMM) in Naples, have for the first time been able to read letters hidden inside two carbonized papyri without unrolling them. Until now it has appeared impossible to distinguish ink from papyrus inside a scroll using conventional X-ray techniques.

Read the full story here.

The papyrus scroll was reduced to lumps of coal by the 750-degree Fahrenheit cloud that wrapped the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It was excavated 260 years ago from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, a magnificent seafront estate thought to be owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar's father-in-law.

The Villa of the Papyri was the largest Roman villa ever found. It was recreated in the 1970s in California by Paul Getty, whose art museum in Malibu is a replica of how the villa is thought to have looked. It stretched down toward the sea on four terraces. The villa housed one of the finest libraries of antiquity. The scrolls consisted mainly of Epicurean philosophical texts and were carefully stored in shelves covering the walls.

During the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the scrolls, as well as the Herculaneum citizens, were burned by a furnace-like blast of hot gas. The tremendous pressure of the pyroclastic material compressed the scrolls and even deformed some of the villa's walls.

Paradoxically preserved forever (Herculaneum's seaside air would have destroyed them) the scrolls now consist of the only library items known to have survived the ancient world. Out of the 1,785 scrolls discovered during the 18th century excavation, only 585 had been completely unrolled using a 18th century mechanical method while 209 have been partly unrolled. About 400 have never been unrolled and 450 are so difficult to read that their text remains unknown.

Until now, it has appeared impossible to distinguish ink from papyrus inside a scroll using conventional X-ray techniques. To overcome the problem, Mocella and colleagues turned to X-ray phase contrast tomography (XPCT). The technology takes advantage of subtle differences in the way X-rays pass through different substances, in this case papyrus and ink. The team examined two scrolls (one unrolled and the other still rolled-up) which were handed to Napoleon Bonaparte as a gift in 1802 and now belong to the collection of the Institut de France. On the unrolled scroll the researchers identified two words written in several superposed layers of papyrus. On one of the hidden layers, the sequence of Greek capital letters PIPTOIE, possibly meaning "would fall," could be read, while another sequence, EIPOI, meaning "would say," was spotted in the following line.

But the main object in the investigation was a carbonized, sausage-shaped, rolled-up papyrus. During the eruption, the scroll suffered a devastating shock, which deformed its internal spiral structure, as this rendition of the reconstructed papyrus shows. The letters were distorted, making data analysis a real challenge.

Nevertheless, the scanner was able to pick out all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. The researchers not only identified some words such as "deny," "for," "the," "to move," but also pinpointed a specific handwriting style, which led to the likely author, the Greek philosopher and poet Philodemus.

"While our first experiments have revealed only small segments of writing and are in need of further refinement, we note that once the XPCT technique has been tuned, the imaging of an entire papyrus scroll should not require more than a few hours of synchrotron beam time," the researchers said. New experiments are scheduled for the spring. The researchers also hope to determine the chemical composition of the ink, which, according to ancient sources, was made of water, smoke residues and gum acacia.

Read the full story here.