Sunday, September 16, 2012


The Smell of Burning Papyrus

Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007), p. 21, with note on p. 228:
It was in Egypt that a Danish scholar, Niels Iversen Schow (1754-1830), bought a roll of original papyrus written in Greek. According to legend, he was offered fifty rolls, but bought only one (whereupon the locals burned the rest in order to enjoy the smell). This he presented to Cardinal Stefano Borgia. The roll, now known as the Charta Borgiana, did not preserve lyric poetry: when published (in 1788) it turned out to contain a document, a list of 181 men who, over a five-day period in February AD 193, the 33rd year of the (recently murdered) Emperor Commodus, carried out forced labour on the embankments at Tebtunis.13

13 SB I.5124.
SB = Sammelbuch griechischer Urkunden aus Ägypten (non vidi). The papyrus is now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, no. 2318.

Despite Parsons' phrasing ("It was in Egypt that...Schow...bought"), it's not clear to me that Schow ever set foot in Egypt. Here is his own account, from his 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.
My 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 the distinguished prelate 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.
Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, Fayûm Towns and Their Papyri (London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1900), p. 17, cast doubt on part of Schow's story:
The reason assigned is not a very good one, for the smell of burning papyrus is no more aromatic than that of burning paper; but there is no doubt about the disappearance of other rolls.
See also George Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910), p. xxiv, n. 2:
The result of an experiment, conducted along with Prof. E.J. Goodspeed on some papyrus fragments, leads the present writer rather to doubt the 'aromatic' part of the story.
I haven't seen Alain Martin, "En marge de la Charta Borgiana," Chronique d'Égypte 75 (2000) 118-125.

Update from Eric Thomson:

I'm sure you're right. Schow never set foot in Egypt. Perhaps he heard about the manuscript through his friend Georg Zoega who was the Cardinal's assistant. Another mistake, or at least anachronism, is to refer to Stefano Borgia as Cardinal during this period as he wasn't made Cardinal until March 1789 (Giuseppe Baraldi, 'Notizia biografica sul cardinale Stefano Borgia di Velletri', Modena 1830, p. 28), the year after publication of the Charta Borgiana. I wonder if Schow's 'amplissimum Praesulem' isn't then 'distinguished Prelate' or something of that sort rather than Cardinal?

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