Researchers Unlock Secrets of Basel Papyrus

Now identified as a late antiquity medical document, the 2,000-year-old papyrus describes the phenomenon of female “hysterical apnea”

The document actually consisted of multiple sheets of papyrus that had been glued together, perhaps to be used as book binding in a common form of medieval “recycling” University of Basel

Upon his father’s death in 1562, Basilius Amerbach inherited an eclectic collection of curiosities. The elder Amerbach, a Swiss scholar named Bonifacius, had acquired the menagerie of paintings, engravings, coins and various antiquities over the course of his career—amongst other claims to fame, Bonifacius was a friend and patron of portraitist Hans Holbein the Younger and sole heir of the Christian humanist philosopher Erasmus.

Basilius readily expanded the Amerbach collection, tracking down ivory carvings, additional Holbein paintings and drawings, and nearly 4,000 coins and exonumia. But after he died in 1591, he left behind no male heir to inherit the impressive collection. Over the course of the next seven decades, the collection bounced around until finally landing at the University of Basel in 1661. Ten years later, it was featured in the first iteration of what is now the Kunstmuseum Basel.

Today, the University of Basel retains ownership of assorted Amerbach treasures, including a mysterious papyrus that has long puzzled researchers. The document, one of two from Amerbach’s collection, features mirror writing on both sides, rendering it largely illegible. According to a statement released on Thursday, however, researchers have finally decoded the singular papyrus.

“We can now say that it’s a medical text from late antiquity that describes the phenomenon of ‘hysterical apnea,’” Sabine Huebner, a professor of ancient history, explains in the statement. “We therefore assume that it is either a text from the [Greek] physician Galen, or an unknown commentary on his work.”

Huebner and her team arrived at their conclusion after studying ultraviolet and infrared images of the papyrus. Scans showed the document actually consisted of multiple sheets of papyrus that had been glued together, perhaps to be used as book binding in a common form of medieval “recycling.” After a specialist papyrus restorer separated the sheets, the researchers were able to decipher its contents.

The Basel team linked its papyrus to Galen by drawing parallels with the Ravenna papyri, a group of significant documents that includes many of the physician’s ancient manuscripts. According to the press release, researchers now believe the second Amerbach papyrus was stolen from the Ravenna collection and traded amongst art collectors.

In a 2012 paper on female hysteria—alternatively delineated by displays of excessive emotion and disorders ranging from “anxiety, sense of suffocation, tremors, sometimes even convulsions and paralysis”—a team of researchers from the University of Cagliari write that Galen, a 2nd-century Greek physician who practiced in Rome, espoused similar views to those of Hippocrates. The fellow Grecian, who lived during the 5th century B.C.E. and is widely considered the father of medicine, was the first to coin the term “hysteria.”

According to feminist scholar and neurophysiologist Ruth Beier, Hippocrates believed that hysteria was triggered by movement of the “‘wandering womb,’ a uterus that has become too dry, usually from lack of coitus. … Such an unhappy uterus bumps around in the abdomen, looking for moisture and, when it hits the liver, may produce sudden suffocation," Beier writes, noting that "[t]his was known, reasonably enough, as hysterical apnea.”

In his writings, Galen echoes Hippocrates, commenting that he has “examined many hysterical women, some stuporous, others with anxiety attacks. ... The disease manifests itself with different symptoms, but always refers to the uterus.” His proposed cures for hysteria: purges, administrations of various herbs, marriage or the repression of stimuli likely to “excite” young women.

Moving forward, Huebner and her colleagues plan on digitizing the university’s entire papyrus collection, which consists of 65 documents dating back to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.

“The papyri are all part of a larger context,” Huebner said in the statement. “People mentioned in a Basel papyrus text may appear again in other papyri, housed for example in Strasbourg, London, Berlin or other locations. It is digital opportunities that enable us to put these mosaic pieces together again to form a larger picture."

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