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Report Says Expedition Finds Classical Greek Texts

April 8, 1988

LONDON (AP) _ An expedition leader said Friday that archaeologists in Egypt have dug up what may prove to be the earliest complete versions of three classical Greek texts, at least one of them by Aristotle.

Professor Anthony J. Mills said his Canadian team found two books dating from the late third century A.D., one literary and one containing farm accounts, while excavating the remains of the post-Hellenic town of Isment in the Dakhla Oasis in central Egypt.

The literary manuscript contains a treatise on politics, apparently by the philosopher Aristotle; an essay on kingship by Isocrates, his 4th-century B.C. contemporary; and an unidentified text that could be one of Aristotle’s lost works, Mills said.

The earliest complete texts of writings by Aristotle and Isocrates that survive in museums today date from the 10th century, a British expert said.

The original works of classical Greek scholars have vanished. What survives are usually separated from the authors’ lifetimes by hundreds of years of copying and re-copying by scribes.

The new discoveries could bring scholars more than six centuries closer to the lost originals and eliminate what the Times of London described Friday as ″generations of slips of the pen.″

The books, measuring 4-by-10 inches, each has eight or nine wooden pages one-eighth of an inch thick, said Mills, 51, an Egyptologist affiliated with the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Mills, leader of a 25-member museum expedition that travels to the Dakhla Oasis every winter, said the books were found in mid-January.

They are written in ancient Greek with a split-reed pen, bound on one side and held together with the original strings, he said in a telephone interview from his home in Bodmin, southwest England.

″The books are in excellent condition, the wood is good and hard and the writing is very clear,″ he said.

″The one with literary text is written in a very clear, very small and very precise hand. I would guess there would be 60 lines on each page, and writing on both sides of the page.″

The farm manuscript lists local tenant farmers and their commodities over a four-year period, he said.

The expedition of zoologists, botanists, ceramics experts and others examining the links between human activity and the environment in Isment were short of a classicist at the time of the discovery. He said they sent for Guy Wagner, a French specialist in ancient Greek texts who was working in an expedition at the nearby Kharga Oasis.

Wagner and a Danish colleague who accompanied him said the writing seemed like Aristotle’s but could not be sure if it was a manuscript that was already known, Mills said. He said research was being conducted.

″They were very excited,″ he said. ″It’s a marvelous find, a very rare find. There’s so much that’s new and incontrovertible in this work. The information is so clearly stated.″

The books were found about six feet below the surface and three feet above the floor of a house and may have been accidentally dropped, Mills said.

″We wondered that perhaps they fell out of somebody’s saddlebags as they were going by″ in the 4th or 5th century, Mills said. The town had been abandoned and was eventually buried by sand dunes around the sixth century, he said.

The unidentified text could be one of Aristotle’s lost works, Mills said. Of abvout 150 named works that Aristotle left, fewer than 30 survive in more than fragmentary form.

Thomas Pattie, a papyrologist at the British Library, said few texts by Aristotle have been found in Egypt and most are written on papyrus, a water plant used by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans to make writing materials.

″This is written on wood - not so many have been found - and was possibly for school use,″ Pattie said in an interview.

The earliest surviving fragmentary manuscript containing an Aristotle work, ″The Constitution of Athens,″ dates from the first century A.D. and is written on papyrus.

″There are several fragments from the second century and this is apparently from the third century but it may be more substantial,″ he said.

″It might turn out to be very important indeed. These complete texts could be about 600 years older that the next oldest full texts.″

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