I love the smell of burning papyrus in the morning.

The best thing I read today was actually from a fourth-century grammatical handbook, but I am too tired to write it. This is the second-best thing I read today, from Laudator Temporis Acti (go see the blog for more):

Charta papyracea Graece scripta Musei Borgiani Velitris (Rome: Antonius Fulgonius, 1788), pp. iii-iv (footnotes omitted):

Reperta fuit charta papyracea Musei Borgiani una cum quadraginta aut quinquaginta aliis anno MDCCLXXVIII. in loco quodam subterraneo urbis Gizae, in cuius regione, ut notum est, antiqua Memphis vulgo sita esse creditur. Omnes hae chartae papyraceae (quonam modo volutae fuerint, nescio) in capsula quadam ex ligno sycomori reconditae, negotiatori cuidam exiguo pretio offerebantur: hic autem, summi harum rerum valoris ac pretii nescius, unam tantum, quae nostra est, novitatis causa emptam ad amplissimum Praesulem Stephanum Borgiam mittendam curabat: reliquas diripiebant Turcae, earumque fumo (nam odorem fumi aromaticum esse dicunt) sese oblectabant. En miseram insignium horum monumentorum sortem, qua per tot rerum vicissitudines feliciter conservata foedis ac inhumanis hisce barbaris, ut praeda, oblata fuisse videntur: benigniori autem nostrae chartae sorte laetemur, atque spe, fore, ut & plura aliquando, sub melioribus forsan auspiciis, eiusdem generis monumenta reperiantur, de tristi hoc damno nos consolemur.

Michael Gilleland’s translation:

This papyrus document belonging to the Borgian Museum was found, along with forty or fifty others, in 1778, in an underground spot in the city of Giza. In that region, as is known, the ancient city of Memphis is commonly thought to have been located. All these papyrus documents (I don’t know how they were discovered) were stored in a box made of sycamore wood and were offered for sale to a dealer at a low price. But the dealer, ignorant of the great value and worth of these objects, bought only one (i.e. ours) for the sake of novelty and arranged for it to be sent to Cardinal Stefano Borgia. Turks tore the rest to pieces and entertained themselves with the smoke (for they say that the smell of the smoke is aromatic). Behold the sad fate of these extraordinary manuscripts—luckily preserved through so many vicissitudes, they seem to have been handed over as plunder to these foul and savage barbarians. We rejoice in the kindlier fate of our papyrus, and we console ourselves for the sad loss of the rest with the hope that some day, under better auspices, perhaps, many more similar documents will be found.


Incidentally, many more similar documents have been found. Thousands, actually. When working on papyrus with Fr. Francis Gignac, S.J., I once saw the wild old Jesuit, who once wrote the book—literally—on the grammar of Greek papyri, produce from the pocket of his swishy jogging pants a handful of papyrus fragments he had helped himself to in a dusty basement in Oxford where, Fr. Gignac said, a great number of boxes of papyrus purchased from the various fish dealers, moneylenders, phone card sellers and shady dealers-in-commodities else who populate the banks of the Nile up and down, lie gathering dust for want of papyrologists.

I edited one that semester. It was a letter between siblings.

The fragments of papyrus didn’t smell particularly good or bad, but I for one find the smell of burning leaves not unpleasant.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being my gadfly.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.