Conservator Discovers Oldest Known Book Fragment on Mummy

This 3rd-century BC find is shaking up the history of books.

Lauren Thomann is an antique dealer, freelance writer, and editor with 16 years of experience and a B.A. in English and Linguistics. She specializes in antiques (mainly Victorian through Mid-Century), antique jewelry, old house renovations, and lifestyle and home-related content.

Theresa Zammit Lupi, a conservator at the University of Graz in Austria, was going about her day, checking out the university’s papyrus collection, when she stumbled upon something extraordinary. She found a page from a book that dates back to the 3rd century BC. That’s not just old—it’s ancient!

This wasn’t just any old page, though. It was part of a codex (an early book form), and it had been used to wrap a mummy. Yes, you read that right. This piece of papyrus had a second life as a mummy wrapping. It was unearthed over a century ago in El Hiba, an archaeological site far from King Tut’s tomb. But its true significance wasn’t realized until Theresa came across it.

Theresa described her discovery: “I saw a piece of thread, then the format of a book, and then the text within clearly defined margins on the papyrus.” The text was all about tax accounts for beer and oil. And interestingly, it was written in Greek, which was widely used in Egypt at the time.

This discovery, now known as the ‘Graz Mummy Book,’ is a real game-changer. It’s older than what were previously considered the oldest books by a staggering 400 years. (Those ancient documents are housed at the British Library in London and the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin).

Erich Renhart and Thomas Csanády, who oversee the Special Collections at Graz University, are incredibly excited about this. They believe that the Graz Mummy Book is the oldest known form of a codex to date. They also suggest that more such codex fragments might exist in other collections that haven’t been thoroughly searched yet.

The University of Graz will invite international specialists later this year to discuss this ancient find. And Theresa? She’s just thrilled to be part of this historical discovery. She said, “As a conservator, it feels very special to contribute to the history of the book. At the same time, it’s surreal. It’s like watching a movie!” And what a story it is!

For more information, check out the University of Graz and the Graz Mummy Book.

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