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The oldest item in the University library: History's back pages

Published April 8, 2007

Plenty of books in the University Library system are old. You know the ones - they have tattered yellow pages almost ready to fall out of them their binding.

Jessica Boullion
A piece of "The Book of the Dead," the oldest written work in the University Library collection. The University owns three pieces of the book, which was written on papyrus about 3,000 years ago. (courtesy of the University Library)

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But they're brand new compared with the pieces of the Book of the Dead in the University Library.

The library owns three pieces of an ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. The book was written in Egypt about 3,000 years ago, making the fragments the oldest items in the University archives.

Written on papyrus in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the book contains spells that were uttered to guide the recently deceased in their journey into the afterlife.

Classical Studies Prof. Traianos Gagos, an archivist in the papyrology department, said the University Library owns three fragments of the Book of the Dead. The University purchased them - along with 400 other papyrus scrolls - from an antiquities dealer in October 1926, Gagos said.

Gagos said the University tested the age of the scroll using carbon-dating and analyzed the writing style and use of color to more accurately predict the text's age. They concluded that the scroll was written around 1000 B.C.

The pieces of the Book of the Dead in the University Library system depict people facing the god Horus, Gagos said. Horus, depicted as a man with the head of a falcon, was the god of the sky in ancient Egyptian mythology.

The University's papyrus collection is sealed within a temperature-controlled room on the eighth floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library. The room, which is protected by a security system, can only be accessed by passing through two sets of locked doors.

Although the elaborate security system seems like it is designed to protect mountains of ancient treasure, the system is necessary to ensure the safety and preservation of the artifacts, Gagos said. The temperature inside this chamber is maintained at 65 degrees and 45 percent humidity - roughly the same as the desert environment in which the artifacts were found, he said.

The Book of the Dead is currently on loan to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. One fragment of the scroll is on display, and the other two are in storage, Gagos said.

JOHN SLOAN