It’s not often that the solving of a puzzle is announced with a press release and a multinational celebration. Then again, it’s not often that anyone solves a 2,000-year-old puzzle and discovers it contains the writings of an ancient Roman physician who would be as famous as Hippocrates if he had an oath. Researchers in Geneva, Switzerland, announced they’ve broken the code of the famous 2,000-year-old Basel Papyrus by finding the real reason why it appeared to be in mirror writing. (It’s not.)
According to Smithsonian.com, in 1562, Basilius Amerbach inherited his Swiss father’s vast collection of papers, paintings, coins and antiquities, which he expanded until his own death in 1591. With no male heir, the collection passed through many hands until 1661, when it was acquired by the University of Basel. The collection contained two papyri, which were grouped with another collection of 65 papyri obtained by the university in 1900 and referred to as the Basel Papyri. The new additions were easily translated from the five languages they were written in, but the two ancient papyri seemed to be in a mirror-image code that could not be deciphered.
That was the problem. The Basel Digital Humanities Lab quit trying to read them and x-rayed them instead. Those ultraviolet and infrared images showed that this was not a single sheet of two-sided, mirror-writing papyrus but many pages glued together with … something. You don’t just peel 2,000-year-old papyrus apart, so a “specialist papyrus restorer” was brought in. (How does one train for this? Peeling phyllo dough? Asking for a friend.)
Once the pages were separated, the pages suddenly became non-mirrored and easy to read (see them here). The next part of the puzzle was determining who wrote them. Solving that was the job of Sabine Huebner, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel. She determined that the document was a rare literary text – most papyri are either letters or business documents such as contracts or receipts. One phrase was the key.
“We can now say that it’s a medical text from late antiquity that describes the phenomenon of ‘hysterical apnea’. We therefore assume that it is either a text from the Roman physician Galen, or an unknown commentary on his work.”
A comparison to known documents written by Galen — Aelius Galenus was a 2nd century Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire who influenced the development of various scientific disciplines (anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology and neurology) and whose theories were accepted for 1300 years – proved the Basel papyri were written by him or about him. The pages may have been recycled or possibly used as book binding, which would explain why they were glued together.
To paraphrase Alexander Graham Bell, when one puzzle closes, another opens. With the solution of the Basel papyri, Huebner says they will be used to solve other papyrus puzzles where only fragments of the original documents may exist.
Back to the phyllo dough.