The curious case of the Tongeren codex

From the science.history.papyri mailing list for December 2007:

Dear colleagues,

A few months ago a small papyrus codex was discovered in the Gallo-Roman Museum at Tongeren (Belgium). It consists of about 100 pages and measures roughly 14 x 13 cm. No writing is visible, but maybe we can read something after the book has been opened. It is dated by C14 to the 11th century AD! For more information, have a look at the website of the Tongeren museum : http://www.papyrustongeren.be/

Willy Clarysse

But that website is now long gone.  There is a picture here:

Tongeren / Tongres codex
Tongeren / Tongres codex

This is a remarkable find; but all the links online are old, to 2007 or 2008.  The details are rather scanty as well.

Another site from Dec 16 2007 reads:

After languishing in obscurity, unrecognized for what it was for over 70 years, an amazing codex on papyrus was rediscovered in late 2006 in the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren, Belgium.

The object, which looked like a lump of tree-bark, was found among a collection of writing-tablets and leather finds from Broekberg in Tongeren which had been excavated in the 1930s. At first, researchers believed that the item dated to the Roman period (100-300 AD) and belonged with the other finds from Broekberg. However, Carbon-14 dating showed it was from the 10th century. Now, how the codex found its way into the Gallo-Roman Museum collection is a mystery.

Sadly, the codex appears blank (the writing may just be faded). It is still a very important find. Firstly, for its late date (when papyrus was essentially, no longer being used, even in Egypt itself) and it is one of the very few examples of papyri which have survived in the damp climate of Europe.

The full story and images of the codex can be found at the Tongeren Gallo-Roman Museum’s Web site.

Then … nothing.

I wrote today to Dr Clarysse and received a gracious reply that there was no more news.  The C14 scan confirmed a 10th (not 11th) century date.  Attempts were made to read it without opening, but in vain.  There the matter rests; for nobody, quite naturally, wants to be the one to decide to break the book-block open on the off-chance of finding something in it.

Dr C. also enclosed a 2008 report, written by himself and G. Creemers.  Some key points from it summarised by myself, are as follows:

The book block was found by museum staff in a box at the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren, together with Roman wood and leather fragments, including writing tablets and pieces of shoes.  The contents of the box came from the excavations at Broekberg near Tongeren in the 1930’s, but have hardly been studied.  Most of the items in the box had inventory numbers, but not the codex.  At first sight it looked like a piece of tree-bark.  Dr C. was called in, once it was suspected to be papyrus.

The codex is light brown in colour, and measures 140 x 130 mm.  Thickness of the sheets varies from 16-46 mm.  The booklet is made up of around 100 sheets, folded in two.  A portion of the codex has been lost.  Only a tiny bit of sewing thread, of fine green silk, is present.  The papyrus is of high quality, although now brown and brittle.

It is obvious that the codex cannot have been in the earth at the excavations, or it would have decayed.  One of the team of investigators, Dr. Lieve Watteeuw, is cited with the opinion that it must have been in some form of protected case.  However there are also marks of burning at the edges.

A CT and UV scan were performed; no writing was visible.

The report concludes with a number of theories as to where this item comes from.  It is possible that it has been dumped in a box at the museum, and originally came from a 19th-20th century collector, or from some other source.  There seems little reason to connect it with the excavations.

The item should now be examined under multi-spectral imaging, I think.

4 thoughts on “The curious case of the Tongeren codex

  1. Carbon-14 dating is not always reliable. One thing that can distort the results is smoke, and the codex shows evidence of fire damage.

  2. http://www.archeonet.be/?p=4303
    Claims that by the 10th century, papyrus was used only infrequently, usually for charters but certainly not for books. These two reasons make it a special find: late date and book.

    http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf07112007_067
    Book, almost square, 140x130mm, 16-46mm thick, about 100 pages. They found no traces of iron gall ink, but found some traces of Fe, Cu and Zn. The possibility cannot be excluded that another type of ink was used. There are 6 books of papyrus in Western libraries that can be dated to 6th-8th century.

  3. I think X ray tomography, the kind used by the University of Kentucky team to try and read the carbonized papyri of Herculaneum at Paris would be more appropriate than Multispectral or Hyperspectral imaging. After, both only read the surface layer

Leave a Reply