The first reports of a dramatic find in the Egyptian desert generated headlines around the world. Speaking in Cairo, Canadian archeologist Anthony Mills announced the discovery of two books with wooden pages—and that one volume held copies of works by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. But the excitement over that mid-January find was shortlived. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, Mills said further study had shown that the handwritten pages in one book contain three political essays by Isocrates, another Greek philosopher and a fourth-century-BC contemporary of the great Athenian thinker. Still, the well-preserved texts date from the third century AD. As a result, scholars will be able to study copies that are six centuries closer to Isocrates’ now-lost originals than any other previously discovered versions. And the unearthing of the second book—a ledger of land rents paid by tenant farmers—focused further attention on a 25-member team working a site covering 900 square
miles under Mills’s leadership.
Since 1978 international scholars have set off each January for a threemonth dig at the Dakhleh Oasis—an isolated patch of greenery in the barren sands of Egypt’s Western Desert. At an annual cost of more than $100,000, the expedition—sponsored by
The find focused further attention on a unique archeological project at a site spread over 900 square miles
grants from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Ottawa, Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto-based Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities—has undertaken an ambitious task: to study human settlement patterns throughout history at a single site. That time period, from the Old
Stone Age to the present, covers more than 200,000 years. But the dry climate and the remote location of the oasis in central Egypt have helped preserve evidence of the past for the team’s ambitious quest.
The desert sand that filled a ruined, third-century-AD house sheltered books that were still held together with the original string bindings. According to Mills, British archeologist Colin Hope found the books buried in the sand at a depth that was one yard above the floor level of the house— suggesting that someone had lost them after the dwelling was abandoned.
Each book contains nine wooden pages, four inches wide, 10 inches long and one-eighth of an inch thick. According to Mills, a scribe used ink and a split-reed pen to cover each page with columns of ancient Greek. Shortly after the discovery two specialists in Greek writings examined the book containing the essays on kingship and government and decided that they appeared to have been written in a style favored by Aristotle. The specialists reached that conclusion just before the archeological team completed its yearly expedition to the oasis. But in a recent interview from his residence in southwest England, Mills, a 51-yearold native of Hamilton, said that other experts had subjected the text to clos-
er scrutiny—and concluded that the book contained Isocrates’ writings. Despite that revision, many scholars say that the newly discovered manuscript is still valuable because it likely contains far fewer of the errors that have crept in over the centuries as generations of scribes copied the old texts.
In any event, Mills said that thor-
ough study of the second book, a fouryear record of rents paid by a dozen farmers, should reveal fresh details about ordinary life in an outpost of the Roman empire. Archeologists already know that the extension of Roman rule to the oasis—an event that roughly coincided with the dawn of the Christian era—inaugurated a golden period for
the area that lasted for approximately 500 years. Ismant, the desert city that flourished under the Roman eagle, boasted such civic monuments as a governor’s mansion and splendid temples—remains that now await examination in an archeological project that Mills estimates will require another 25 years to complete.
The accounts book has already yielded intriguing—if tentative—insights about that buried community. Mills said that Christianity had likely made few converts among the town’s inhabitants by the end of the third century AD. He added that although the landlord had taken a Christian name— John—and began his book by praising God, his tenants are all listed under traditional Greek or Egyptian names—an indication, Mills said, that the city was largely pagan. And while Mills acknowledged that finding Isocrates’ works was an exciting and unexpected bonus, he maintained that its less illustrious companion, with its accounts of rental tallies and references to the cultivation of such crops as barley, wheat and cotton, fitted more closely with the project’s theme: reconstructing the vanished life of an oasis that still sustains 40,000 inhabitants.
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