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International scholars assess mysterious scroll found in mummy


During the second century B.C., a mummy-maker took a scroll of poetry and used it as stuffing for a corpse. The roll of papyrus remained hidden inside the mummy’s chest cavity until its rediscovery in the early 1990s. Today, what was once treated like trash survives as the oldest surviving example of a Greek poetry book, as well as an important source of information about the past.

To glean as many clues from this ancient scroll as possible, the University of Cincinnati Department of Classics is calling together an international array of scholars Nov. 7-9. More than 60 experts in the fields of papyrology, Hellenistic and Roman literature, art history and image studies, and Ptolemaic history will gather at the Vernon Manor for "The New Posidippus" conference analyzing this new artifact.

Organized by Kathryn Gutzwiller, UC professor of classics and an expert on Greek poetry, the symposium takes its name from the scroll’s author, Posidippus, a third century B.C. poet from Pella, Macedonia. "I knew that it would be important to assess the papyrus from a variety of perspectives," said Gutzwiller. She contacted scholars and asked them to spend the year prior to the conference preparing their assessments.

Two Italian scholars at the University of Milan worked in consultation with a Cambridge University scholar to publish the first look at the scroll in 2001. That volume was published in Italian by Guido Bastianini, Claudio Gallazzi and Colin Austin.

The UC conference represents the first public gathering of scholars in the United States to examine the scroll. Austin, the Cambridge scholar, will address the conference during a banquet that begins at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, at the Phoenix Restaurant. Participants include 14 speakers and eight scholars who will preside at each session. Speakers include UC classics professor and papyrologist William Johnson, who gives the conference’s first address at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning, and Gutzwiller, who speaks at 10:45 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 9.

Prior to the scroll’s discovery, scholars knew of only two of the brief poems, or epigrams, on the papyrus, and both were attributed to Posidippus, who was known prior to the new scroll as the author of more than 20 other epigrams. The new scroll, held by the University of Milan (Italy), contains 110 new Posidippus poems, in addition to the two already known.

All of the new poems take the form of epigrams, which are Gutzwiller’s specialty. But Gutzwiller notes that the Milan papyrus has significance far beyond the world of epigrams. Scholars know nothing of the mummy and its origin, because it is privately held. The scroll, however, is organized into nine surviving sections: stones, omens, dedications, grave epitaphs, statues, horse racing, shipwrecks, cures and character/manners. According to Gutzwiller, it:

Offers the most significant discovery of previously unknown Greek literature in decades. The new scroll also "constitutes our earliest surviving example of a poetry book," she said. "It was elegantly constructed, a deluxe edition."

Is remarkable for its length, its excellent state of preservation and for the information it provides about how poetry was arranged on papyrus rolls at this early period.

Sheds new light on history, especially women’s history. Posidippus wrote his poems for the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, who inherited that portion of Alexander the Great’s kingdom after his death. In the dedications section, epigrams celebrate the cult worship of a queen who was regarded as a goddess after her death. In the racing section, Posidippus praises three Ptolemaic queens for their success in owning horses that won races throughout the Greek world.

Provides documentation about art history. The statue section makes references to Polycleitus, Myron and Lysippus, three of the best-known Greek sculptors.
Here is an example of one of the epigrams:
Lysippus, Sikyonian sculptor, daring hand, learned artisan,
your bronze statue has the look of fire in its eyes,
that one you made in the form of Alexander. The Persians deserve
no blame. We forgive cattle for fleeing a lion.

The scroll is particularly intriguing to Gutzwiller because it provides proof of a thesis she first espoused in her book, "Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context" (1998). The book, which won an award from the American Philological Association, argued that Greek epigrams had been placed in "collections" or scrolls of poetry as far back as the third century B.C.

"Today we take collections of poetry for granted, but literature didn’t appear in that form until after 300 B.C.," said Gutzwiller. "Before that, poetry was mostly performed as song." The poetry of Sappho, for example, was mostly sung and performed orally. Poetry books, like this one by Posidippus, were designed for reading, and that was new.

Most Greek literature has come down to us by being copied and re-copied in manuscripts over a period of centuries, Gutzwiller said. Papyri from Egypt are our only source of new texts of Greek literature, and significant finds of this type are very rare. Most papyri are just scraps containing only bits of text, Gutzwiller said. "This is the better part of a whole scroll," she said. "We think we have the beginning and most of the scroll, although some poems at the end are missing."

Aside from the Phoenix banquet, the scholars will meet at the Vernon Manor’s Regency Room. Sessions are open only to scholars who have registered in advance and the news media.

Marianne Kunnen-Jones | University of Cincinnati

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