Invaluable papyrus published at last
The first official edition of the Derveni text, with an extensive commentary, is launched in Thessaloniki following 26 years of research
Photo: The Derveni Papyrus, the oldest Greek papyrus, dates to around 340 BC and was probably written quite some time earlier, perhaps in the late fifth, or early fourth century. It is of tremendous importance for the study of both papyrology and archaeology. Scholars who have studied it describe it as ‘the most significant new evidence about ancient Greek philosophy and religion since the Renaissance.’
By Iota Myrtsioti - Kathimerini
Scholars turned out in force on Thursday night for the launch of the first full edition of the Derveni Papyrus at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.
The oldest book in Europe, the Derveni Papyrus is an Orphic, eschatological text that discusses the fate of the soul and the role of the Furies. A mystic, often allegorical text, it was written in the last quarter of the fourth century BC. Scholars who have studied it describe it as «the most significant new evidence about ancient Greek philosophy and religion since the Renaissance.»
The book was found in 1962 in a grave at Derveni, in Thessaloniki. Some scholars object to the fact that the book has not been made accessible to other researchers. The Institute of Philosophical Research, directed by Apostolos Pierris, decried what it called «a major scandal in scientific chronicles.» It also accuses the team of scholars, professors Kyriakos Tsantsanoglou, Theokritos Kouremenos and Georgios Prasaoglou of Thessaloniki University, of hiding the papyrus for decades, delaying its scholarly and critical publication and thereby depriving «the international community of scholars of any access to such a significant text.»
Why was there no scholarly Greek publication for 26 years, despite the fact that, by 1982, the researchers had read 80 percent of the text?
«Because we had to complete it, which included interpreting all of the legible surviving text on 26 scrolls,» Tsantsanoglou told Kathimerini. «It was a difficult task, since we had to assemble that gigantic puzzle which would lead to its integrated form. The first, unauthorized publication in 1982, in a foreign scholarly journal, set us back, as it formed the basis of numerous studies on the Derveni Papyrus.»
As time passed, the papyrus became common property: «In Europe and America,» said the professor, «there were 100 papers and three publications on it. But we went ahead with our research. In 1993 we added another seven columns, which were presented at an international conference.» The Greek researchers followed up with more publications, but there was no official publication.
Besides, the religious and philosophical interpretation was not easy. «Gaps made the task difficult to understand what was allegorical and what was literal in the approach used by the author of the text,» he added.
The dispute flared up in June, when the Greek Culture Ministry announced that the Patras Institute of Philosophical Research and Oxford University were to collaborate on a new study of the papyrus.
At a press conference in the presence of Deputy Economy and Finance Minister Petros Doukas, Pierris and lecturer Dirk Obbink of Oxford announced that they had begun taking photographs for the philosophical analysis of the text, describing those who had studied it so far as «not equal to the stature of the find.»
Following approval by the Central Archaeological Council, the new research team undertook to decipher the text by electronic means. More than 200 charred chunks of papyrus went under the microscope again for a new deciphering and reading, this time with the use of micro-phase photography.
Meanwhile, the researchers at Thessaloniki University completed the first full edition of the papyrus. «The Derveni Papyrus» is in English with a Greek translation and commentary by Tsantsanoglou, Kouremenos - who is professor of papyrology - and Georgios Prasaoglou, who is associate professor of classics.
Other speakers at the presentation were professors Richard Hunter of Cambridge University, Franco Montanari of Genoa University and Gregory Nagy of the Harvard Center of Greek Studies.
Invaluable papyrus published at last
Discoveries that have led to the reexamination of received ideas
Five reasons why the papyrus is unique
Fate of the soul, role of Furies