Ancient Greek Derveni Papyrus: Europe’s oldest surviving book

The first book of the western tradition is recorded on papyrus about 2400 years ago.

After the painstaking process of unravelling and separating the papyrus roll’s charred layers, and then reuniting the numerous fragments, 26 columns of text were salvaged, all of them missing their bottom portions, which had burnt up on the pyre.

Ancient Greek Derveni Papyrus: Europe's oldest surviving book 1
A segment of the ancient Greek Derveni Papyrus. © Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki

The ancient Greek papyrus roll, the Derveni papyrus is considered Europe’s oldest surviving readable manuscript, dating between 340 and 320 BC; Philip II of Macedon ruled at the time.

It is named after the location where it was discovered, six miles north of Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, where it is now housed in the Archaeological Museum.

An intact Chalcolithic human skull was discovered in 1962 among the ashes of a funeral pyre in one of the tombs in the region, which has provided a wealth of exquisite artifacts, especially metal items.

The demanding process of unrolling and separating the charred papyrus roll’s layers, then reconnecting the numerous fragments, resulted in 26 columns of text, all of which had their bottom sections missing, as they had been burnt up in the bonfire.

The Derveni Papyrus is a philosophical treatise

The papyrus is a philosophical treatise and an allegorical commentary on an older Orphic poem concerning the birth of the gods.

Orphism, a mystic and religious movement, reveres Persephone and Dionysus, both of whom journeyed to the Underworld and returned alive.

Euthyphron of Prospalta, Diagoras of Melos, and Stesimbrotus of Thasos are among the scholars who have suggested that the author of the piece is unknown.

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The Derveni papyrus fragments as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. Credit: Gts-tg , CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia

UNESCO listed the ancient papyrus as the first Greek cultural item in its Memory of the World program. The program aims at protecting against decay and oblivion of the world’s documentary heritage by highlighting the value of previous works while also facilitating access to them.