Palimpsests, Before and After

Palimpsests of early manuscripts may be interesting even when they contain no underlying text. Garrett Coptic MS. 7 is a fragment of a late 6th-century or early-7th century parchment codex. The piece was discovered in 1993 among approximately 50 Coptic manuscript fragments that Robert Garrett (1875-1961), Class of 1896, had purchased in Cairo around 1930 and donated to the Princeton University Library in 1942. The scribe used iron-gall ink, composed of ferrous sulfate, gallotannic acid, a binder such as gum Arabic, and occasionally other ingredients. Writing is now only visible only on the flesh side of the piece of parchment, which suffered considerable losses over the centuries. The ink was originally a dark brown but is now very pale, yet readable under ultraviolet light, which causes the ink to fluoresce. (See before-and-after photographs below.) One can see two columns of the Sahidic Gospel of Matthew (14:8-17). Sahidic was the southern dialect of Coptic, the leading dialect in the pre-Islamic period. This passage relates to the death of John the Baptist. It begins with Herodias’s unnamed daughter, known to history and legend as Salome, dancing before King Herod of Judea for his birthday and, at her mother’s urging, asking in return for the head of John the Baptist. The brief accounts in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 14:8-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9), varying in their details, were much embellished over the next two thousand years in art, literature, and opera. Think of the lurid visual details in Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration (1893) for the French version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (“J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan”) and the “Dance of Seven Veils” in Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (1905).

While Garrett Coptic MS. no. 7 has no undertext, there is much to see, such as hardpoint rulings in places, as well as what appears to be a portion of a vertical bounding line along the left side of the first column. Horizontal lines were ruled using vertical rows of prick marks, which can still be seen in the space between the two columns, and are most easily seen using transmitted light. So too is the thinning of the parchment wherever there is writing in iron-gall ink. As the parchment codex replaced the papyrus roll in the Roman Empire, particularly from the 4th century CE, prick marks were necessary to achieve the more-or-less uniform ruling of text areas. The text is written scriptura continua, with no spaces between words, in an upright Biblical majuscule datable to the late 6th or early 7th century. The original Coptic codex had probably been retired from use after a few centuries, stored in an Egyptian monastic collectarium, and then aggressively erased so the parchment could be written on again. Parchment was easily palimpsested, unlike papyrus, making it an attractive writing support for reuse. The flesh side of the parchment retained traces of the iron-gall ink, but writing on the hair side was obliterated. The word palimpsest is derived from a Greek word meaning “scraped again.” But most often, the text was erased for reuse by rubbing it with a wet cloth or sponge, perhaps with occasional spot-scraping if necessary.

Robert Garrett had purchased at least 17 of his Coptic parchment fragments in March 1929, according to annotations in his hand, from the Cairo-based antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman, along with some Greek papyri and early Arabic documents. Nahman was active in the inter¬national antiquities trade from the 1900s until his death in 1948. During the 1920s and 1930s, Nahman was selling Coptic fragments Coptic manuscripts and fragments to European and American libraries, museums, and private collectors. Many had been recovered from the White Monastery, the Coptic Orthodox monastery that St. Shenouda the Archimandrite had founded on the west bank of the Nile at Deir el-Abiad, more than 450 kilometers south of Cairo. By the 19th century, much of St. Shenouda’s large library was housed in the monastery’s “Secret Chamber.” In the 1880s and 1890s, innumerable fragments were sold to what are now the Bibliothèque Nationale and the British Library. Other fragments entered the antiquities trade and are now widely dispersed, from Russia to North America. It is possible that the Princeton fragments were among them. But Nahman also bought and sold Coptic manuscripts from other monasteries, so provenance cannot be certain. In 1942, Garrett donated these Coptic fragments to Princeton, along with the rest of his extensive collection of nearly 10,000 manuscripts that he had amassed since the 1890s.

For more information about the Coptic fragments, see the Preliminary Checklist in the Princeton University Library Papyrus Home Page.

Garrett Coptic MS. 7, photographed under
reflected and ultraviolet light, by Ted Stanley.