The oldest known Egyptian leather manuscript, dating back some 4,000 years, has been rediscovered at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo after it was pulled from a dusty, old storage box, where it had been lost for around 70 years. The precious text contains fine quality depictions of supernatural beings which predate the famous drawings of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Discovery News reports that the manuscript measures 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in length, making it the longest text ever found. It exceeds the next longest text by just 2 inches – an ancient pre-nuptial agreement between a couple due to be married, which sets out how the wife will be provided for, should the marriage fail.
“Taking into account that it was written on both sides, we have more than 5 meters (16.4 feet) of texts and drawings, making this the longest leather roll from ancient Egypt,” Wael Sherbiny, the Belgium-based independent scholar who made the finding, told Discovery News.
The ancient text, which dates from the late Old Kingdom to the early Middle Kingdom (2300 – 2000 BC), is a religious manuscript, which contains spells that would most likely have been recited by a priest, and an illustrated composition of temple rituals that would have also been adapted for funerary use.
The manuscript is adorned with high-quality colorful drawings of divine and supernatural beings, illustrated around 1,000 years before similar drawings appeared in the world renowned Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text containing spells to aid a deceased person’s journey into the afterlife.
Sherbiny told Discovery News that the same illustrated composition that is found in the leather manuscript is also found on the base of Middle Kingdom sarcophagi retrieved from the necropolis of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt, dating to between 2055 and 1650 BC.
“Amazingly, the roll offers an even more detailed iconography than the Hermopolitan coffins in terms of texts and drawings,” Sherbiny said.
The composition in the manuscript predates the illustrations found at Hermopolis, suggesting that they may have had a long history of transmission before being used in the coffin decorations.
Ancient Egyptian leather manuscripts are extremely rare because leather quickly disintegrates over time, while papyri were well-preserved by the dry climate of Egypt. At the time, leather was considered the more prestigious writing material, and was used to record religious texts, as well as important historical events.
Wael Sherbiny had to piece together the leather roll, which was in tiny fragments. He is currently preparing the full publication of the contents of the ancient manuscript.