A 2,000-year-old papyrus covered in inscrutable mirrored text has finally been deciphered – more than 500 years after it was first brought to the University of Basel’s esteemed library for study by Renaissance scholars.
As announced by the institution last week, a team of researchers discovered that the famously inscrutable sheet of papyrus was truly several layers of plant fiber paper glued together after they took ultraviolet and infrared images. The excited classical studies staff then called in a manuscript specialist, who painstakingly separated each page.
With the Greek text legible for the first time, the university was able to translate the papyrus and determine its origin.
“This is a sensational discovery,” project leader and ancient history professor Sabine Huebner stated. “The majority of papyri are documents such as letters, contracts and receipts. This is a literary text, however, and they are vastly more valuable.”
“We can now say that it’s a medical text from late antiquity that describes the phenomenon of ‘hysterical apnea’. We therefore assume that it is either a text from the Roman physician Galen, or an unknown commentary on his work,” Huebner continued.
Galen is one of the most famous figures in the history of medicine. Born in modern-day Turkey in 129 CE, the Greek physician quickly made a name for himself within the academic circles of the Roman Empire and the Middle East thanks to his prolific writings on medicine and philosophy. He is perhaps most famous, however, for his notes and illustrations of "human anatomy".