Maltese woman finds the world’s oldest-known book, rewrites history!

Noticing a small bit of thread sticking out of a two-millennia-old piece of papyrus saw conservator Theresa Zammit Lupi push the history of the book back by 400 years.
A close-up of the papyrus fragment. Photo: Uni Graz/Kernasenko.

It’s not every day that we get to celebrate someone Maltese rewriting the history of something as ubiquitous and influential as the humble book, but today is the day! 

Conservator Theresa Zammit Lupi, who works at the University of Graz in Austria, has discovered that a piece of papyrus that forms part of the university’s collection and which dates to the third century BC, actually shows signs that it was once part of a stitched book. 

That is an incredible discovery considering that, until now, the earliest-known books or fragments of books had been dated to between 150AD and 250AD – a difference of 400 years!

Speaking at a press conference, Zammit Lupi explained how this discovery was a ‘serendipitous’ one, stating that it all started when she noticed a tiny piece of thread on the papyrus, followed by a central fold, stitching holes, and margins, all of which are indications that this was bound with other pieces of papyrus in a previous life.

The papyrus itself was originally part of a notebook on which someone literate in Greek noted down information about beer and oil tax. It was later recycled to be used as cartonnage, which is material used to make funerary masks in ancient Egypt. 

Found in El Hibba in Egypt by British Egyptologists Grenfell and Hunt in 1902, it was then donated to the university in 1904 as a thank you for its financial contributions to the dig. 

Of course, they couldn’t have known that it was actually a priceless piece of evidence that would rewrite the history of the book as we know it!

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