Papyrus fragment found in Egypt could be from ‘oldest book ever discovered,’ experts believe

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A small part of a notebook bound in Egypt almost 2,300 years ago could be the oldest-surviving fragment of a book ever discovered, experts have said.

The proto-paper papyrus in question was excavated at the El-Hiba necropolis in 1902 and is currently housed at Graz University in Austria.

The fragment dates to about 260 B.C. and measures 15cm by 25cm, The Times reported on Thursday.

Experts have hypothesized it was once sewn together into a format known as a “codex,” and at some point was turned into cartonnage, a papier-mache-like material used to encase mummies, the report added.

Experts believe codices first appeared at the dawn of the Roman Empire in the first century B.C., and examples believed to date from A.D. 150-250 held at the British Library and the Chester Beatty museum in Dublin were thought to be the oldest known specimens.

The scribblings on the piece of El-Hiba papyrus appear to be calculations for beer and oil taxes, written in a form of ancient Greek.

“The discovery was a real stroke of luck,” Theresa Zammit Lupi, a conservator specializing in antique written materials, said.

“First I saw a piece of thread, then I realized it had the format of a book. I saw a central fold, the pinholes (for the thread binding) and the text written inside clearly defined margins on the papyrus,” she added.

Erich Renhart, co-director of Graz University library’s special collections, said the El-Hiba papyrus could lead to similar, and perhaps even older, discoveries now experts know how to spot similar traits in other documents.

“It’s not improbable that there are other codex fragments like this in other collections; there had been no systematic search for them until now,” he said. “Papyrus was a fairly cheap writing material, so large quantities of these fragments have been preserved.”

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