The magnificent survival of records. Though was, natural disasters, hatred, forgetfulness and other human stupidities have obliterated vast treasures of past cultures, occasional good luck, the chances and mischances, have at least allowed us to rescue part of our written legacy from oblivion…
…And a truly magnificent copy of Book II of Homer’s Iliad was set in a coffin as a pillow beneath the head of a young woman, whose fune skull bones, small regular teeth and black hair made us believe she was a beauty: certainly she was beloved. Even stranger were the finds at Tebtunis, where P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt came on a cemetery of sacred crocodiles. One dead sacred crocodile is very like another, and the job of excavating thse saurian mummies soon palled. Eventually a workman lost his temper and smashed one of them to pieces. Then it appeared that the crocodiles, too, were incased in molded papyri, and some even had rolls stuffed into their mouths, “and other cavities.” From such absurd hiding places do we recover the records of the past.
Almost all the papyri written in Greek or Roman lettering that we now have were found quite literally in rubbish dumps or in ruins of abandoned houses. Since it scarcely ever rains in Egypt, they lay quite comfortably beneath the dry earth until modern searchers dug them up. The modern Egyptians thought it was about as stupid as digging in Western dumps for tin cans, but they cooperated, for a wage, and even imitated these early excavators when they found out how valuable the rubbish was. In one days work south of Cairo, Grenfell and Hunt got thirty-six basketfulls of papyrus rolls out of one mound alone. These had apparently been discarded as worthless.
We have as yet no idea of the treasures that still may be hidden in the dry sands of Egypt and the neighboring countries. The oldest Latin papyrus ever found and the oldest text of Cicero , part of his most famous set of speeches, written down not long after his death are now in Leipzig: it was bought from Egyptian dealers in the Fayum in 1926: but where did they get it? In 1945 a Gnostic library of thirteen volumes was found in Upper Egypt, containing, among other things, a Gospel in Coptic, adapted from a Christian work written in Greek, which evidently preserved some beautiful traditional words of Jesus.