A Maltese book conservator has made a sensational discovery with the potential of rewriting history after finding what is claimed to be the oldest fragment of a book known to mankind. 

The papyrus fragment is part of the special collection of the University of Graz in Austria, where Zammit Lupi works. 

In a press conference on Thursday, the university said that the fragment dates to the 3rd century BC. The earliest codices with evidence of stitching in book form have been dated to 150-250 AD, the university said. 

“The Graz Mummy Book was created 400 years earlier, making it the oldest surviving form of a book we know of to date,” said Erich Renhart and Thomas Csanády, heads of the Special Collections at Graz University Library.

“However, it is not unlikely that more such codex fragments exist in other collections that have just not been systematically searched for so far. After all, papyrus was a relatively cheap writing material, and large quantities of fragments have survived,” Renhart said.

In a featurette published by the university, Zammit Lupi said the find has made her feel like rogue fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones. 

“I never imagined something like this could happen to me in my career and it really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” she said.

“I consider myself extremely lucky that my eyes just fell on this fragment and I feel as though I’m the Indiana Jones of the University of Graz.” 

But rather than dashing through the corridors of crumbling temples or engaging in thrilling battles of whips, it was Zammit Lupi’s sharp eye during a routine assessment of a group of papyri fragments that landed the discovery, noticing an errant piece of thread peeking from the papyrus. 

“This discovery was totally serendipitous. First I saw a piece of thread, only then did I notice the format of a book. I saw a central fold, the stitching holes and the written text within clearly defined margins on the papyrus,” Zammit Lupi said. 

“As a conservator, it feels very special to contribute to the history of the book. At the same time, you think it's surreal. It's like watching a movie.”

Theresa Zammit Lupi (2nd right) holding the papyrus fragment thought to be part of the oldest known book in history. Photo: Uni Graz/KernasenkoTheresa Zammit Lupi (2nd right) holding the papyrus fragment thought to be part of the oldest known book in history. Photo: Uni Graz/Kernasenko

The fragment was originally found in 1902 on a dig at the archaeological site of El Hibba, south of Fayoum in Egypt. 

The necropolis was excavated by the British Egyptologists Grenfell and Hunt. Their dig had been partially financed by the city of Graz and in 1904 the university was gifted the fragments in recognition of their financial contribution to the dig. 

According to Zammit Lupi, the fragment’s first use was that of a notebook, with legible Greek text on the page describing the taxation of beer and oil. The fragment was later recycled to be used as cartonnage and was used to cover a mummy. 

Zammit Lupi went on to say that the discovery could shake the way conservators study books in the future. 

“I think this is going to create more awareness now, when we look at fragments and books, we not only look at the text and the decoration but also the structure, this is what matters now,” she said.

“When we look at papyri fragments, what matters is also the layout, the positioning of the text and how the fragment is laid out, whether it is a scroll or whether it has a book format, a codex format. So this really does change things for book conservation.”

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