Researchers Solve Mystery of 1,800-Year-Old Basel Papyrus

The University Library in Basel possesses a collection of 65 papyri, mostly in Greek and several in Coptic, Hieratic and Latin.

Less than half of this collection was published by Ernst Rabel in 1917 in Papyrusurkunden der Öffentlichen Bibliothek der Universität zu Basel.

With mirror writing on both sides, one of the Basel papyri — dubbed P.Basel 1A— has puzzled generations of scholars.

Now, thanks to a two-year grant from the Swiss National Foundation, University of Basel’s Professor Sabine Huebner and colleagues are working to make this and other Basel papyri available to both the scholarly audience and the general public.

“The majority of papyri are documents such as letters, contracts and receipts,” Professor Huebner said.

“P.Basel 1A is a literary text, however, and is more valuable. What’s more, it contains a previously unknown text from antiquity.”

With sophisticated imaging techniques, the team was able to show that P.Basel 1A is not a single papyrus, but rather several layers of papyrus glued together.

A specialist papyrus restorer was invited to the University of Basel to separate the sheets, enabling the Greek document to be decoded for the first time.

“We can now say that it’s a medical text from late antiquity that describes the phenomenon of ‘hysterical apnea’,” Professor Huebner said.

“We therefore assume that it is either a text from the Roman physician Galen, or an unknown commentary on his work.”

After the Greek physician Hippocrates, Galen is regarded as the most important physician of antiquity.

“The decisive evidence came from Italy — an expert saw parallels to the famous Ravenna papyri from the chancery of the Archdiocese of Ravenna,” the researchers explained.

“These include many antique manuscripts from Galen, which were later used as palimpsests and written over.”

“P.Basel 1A could be a similar case of medieval recycling, as it consists of multiple sheets glued together and was probably used as a book binding.”

“The other Basel papyrus in Latin is also thought to have come from the Archdiocese of Ravenna. At the end of the 15th century, it was then stolen from the archive and traded by art collectors as a curiosity.”