The Derveni Papyrus

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Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the History section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide, where University of Michigan classicist Richard Janko describes the Derveni Papyrus, a half-burned manuscript found on an ancient funeral pyre in northern Greece in 1962.

This makes it the oldest surviving European book, with the common consensus being that the funeral took place sometime in the 4th century BCE.  While that alone would certainly justify historical interest, that turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg, because by far the most fascinating thing about the Derveni Papyrus isn’t its age, but rather what it actually says. Make sure to watch the video called The Derveni Papyrus.

The story of the Derveni Papyrus is a fascinating combination of archaeology, mythology, science, politics and sociology with no one clear professional consensus that has emerged to date.  Professor Janko, for his part, believes that it strongly supports the view of a “culture war” between rival camps of “traditional religion” and “modern science” in Classical Athens. 

Given this breadth of impact combined with its narrow focus on a particular manuscript, an associated extended essay could go off in many intriguing directions, from a history of the manuscript itself, funeral practices in the classical world, the technology of deciphering ancient manuscripts, cultural tension in ancient Athenian society, and many other topics.  

Related Ideas Roadshow content includes the clips Ancient Culture Wars?, Divining the Date, Idealizing Democracy and Putting the Pieces Together, the compilation videos Classical Greece, Being a Historian and History and Politics, and the eBook and hour-long video The Derveni Papyrus.

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