The professor had a wild and harried look, at once endearing and comical. A bad haircut was perfectly complemented by three days' stubble and a wrinkled shirt half-tucked in. Students and faculty alike smiled as they stepped aside to avoid a head-on collision with him as he raced down the hallway, late as always. Busily haranguing himself on the virtues of organization and watches that actually work, all the while fumbling with the mail he had hastily grabbed from his box, he steered an erratic course toward the lecture hall. He jammed his notes willy-nilly into the text book tucked under one arm and with his one free hand wrenched open the large, stiff manila envelope which dominated the stack of less interesting correspondence.
"Hello! Now what do you know!," he exclaimed, as he leafed through the collection of photographic plates the envelope contained. He quickly skimmed the attached letter, mumbling to no one in particular, "Yes, Yes – well, now what do you know. Really a remarkable find, really . . . ". Finally veering into the lecture hall, he deposited a jumbled pile of notes, books, mail and photographic plates on the lectern, ran his thin fingers through his hair and looked out over the sea of expectant faces.
The instantaneous shift, in thought and visual image, from the photographic plates bearing their ancient writing to the thoroughly modern, slightly bored, men and women awaiting his lecture, caused a sense of curious detachment to pervade his being, as though he belonged completely neither with one nor the other. He was struck by the magnitude of the distance which separated his two worlds: the one in which he existed and the one in which he truly lived. Connecting the two was a fragile, almost gossamer chain of years, centuries and millennia, of scholars and long dead scribes, forgotten individuals who had, against the vagaries and fates of a largely disinterested world, preserved for that world its priceless heritage. He was a classicist, and with all that was within him he held firmly to both worlds, for one without the other was surely lost.
Impulsively, he abandoned his plans for that day's lecture and instead picked up the photographic plate which lay closest to him. Holding it aloft so the class could see, he asked, "What is this? Does anyone know?
A timid voice from somewhere deep in the mid-section replied, "It looks like a papyrus fragment – a picture of one anyway."
"And how old would you say it is?"
The young woman blushed and stammered out an answer, "A thousand years?"
"Closer to two. Judging from the script, it was written during the third century AD."
"What do you mean "judging from the script"?" The young woman's fascination with the subject overrode her shyness.
"Well, there are several ways of nailing down a date for ancient texts. The best one is based on a study of the script in which the document is written. There's a whole field, paleography, which devotes itself to orthographic trends. You must realize that handwriting hasn't always been the sloppy affair it is today. A scribe in ancient times, even the most lackadaisical one, wrote a beautiful hand by today's standards. And he wrote in a very specific style – whatever the style of his period was. Well, for example, let's take a look at this particular fragment."
The professor continued on, pointing to the faded markings on the plate.
"Three hundred or so years after the birth of Jesus, a man sat down and wrote out the tax roll for the village in which he lived in Egypt. He was probably one of the town scribes, the fellows everyone went to when they needed a letter written, or a document read, or, in this case, a tax roll written out. This is a photograph of a fragment of that tax roll. It's part of a list of everyone in the village, and how much tax they owed. You're probably asking yourself why on earth a scribe in ancient Egypt would use the Greek script and language to write a document that was clearly Egyptian in nature. Anyone?" He threw the question out at large. After a silent moment, he went on.
"For the same reason that in our modern world, say in Sweden for example, someone might use English rather than Swedish when they draw up a document. Lingua franca, it's called – a common tongue. Cultures then as now needed a way to communicate across borders – primarily for business and commerce. And at that time, Greek was the lingua franca, and not, interestingly, because they were on top politically, but because ancient Greece and its art were even then considered the benchmark by which all other western cultures were measured. Now this particular fragment is interesting because even though it's a commercial document, it's written in uncials."
"Uncials?" a voice questioned.
"Uncials. The scribe during the time this document was penned could choose from two different styles of writing. If he were drawing up a commercial document, perhaps a deed of land transfer or some other business transaction, then he would likely choose a running, cursive script. Consider it as you would your use of cursive when you take notes in this class. But he could also write in a more formal script, more akin to modern calligraphy, or careful print. That style of writing was used almost exclusively for literary documents, and we call the letters that are written in that manner, uncials. Obviously, this tax roll was important enough, or the scribe was paid enough, to take extra care with this particular document. At any rate, the list was eventually thrown out, and ended up in the village garbage heap. And there it lay until the last decade of the nineteenth century, when some clever Europeans realized that ancient Egyptian garbage heaps held untold numbers of such fragments of papyri manuscripts, and a mad, nationalistic rush began to collect as many of them as possible. Most of the fragments found ended up in universities and museums. Some, however, made their way into the collections of individuals. In fact, this particular fragment, along with fifty-two others, was just purchased by the university from a collector's estate in England. Anyway, as I was saying, most of the fragments deal with mundane business transactions, like this tax roll, which, while pretty boring on one level, are fascinating on a higher level because of the light they shed on the everyday life of men and women thousands of years ago. But there is a second category of papyri fragments found in those ancient landfills – fragments of literary texts, and those are the real gems."
"Why?" Someone piped up. "Don't we have reliable copies of ancient literature?"
"They are invaluable because they are much older, and therefore, one would presume, truer to the author's original text, than many of the copies of such manuscripts that we have today."
The professor paused and gently touched the faded script, feeling the tangible link with a life long since lived.
"How many manuscripts and fragments do we have?"
"Is this on the exam?"
"How many manuscripts do we have," the professor repeated the question and pulled himself into the present. "A straightforward question that belies a straightforward answer. There are ancient manuscripts from China, India, the Near East and what we in the West refer to as the Classical World. Perhaps thousands of complete, or nearly complete manuscripts, in various states of repair and thousands of fragments. The most ancient writing, on clay tablets and stone, dates from the Sumerian civilization, about five thousand years ago. Of course," here the professor's face took on a look that was all too familiar to his students – one that was referred to by some as his "pre-launch" expression, for it meant that he, and his lecture, were about to leave the planet for their own private destination, "Of course, people had crude methods for keeping count, simple bookkeeping really, thousands of years before they were able to express language in writing."
He paused, seemingly lost in his thoughts about prehistoric mankind. After a moment, with a shake of his head, he resumed the lecture.
"At any rate, that's not what I want to discuss today. We are talking about manuscripts, and how very precious they are to modern man. But they were equally precious to the ancients, at least some of them were. There was an entire library complex set up in the city of Alexandria, in Egypt, during the second and third centuries BC, to catalog and preserve the texts that were extant at that time. Papyrus rolls with identical works, for example Homer's Odyssey, were collected by the library and checked against each other for accuracy. If an error was found in one, the error would be marked. For instance, if a word or line was found to be spurious – perhaps a scribe inadvertently copied a line twice – a standard, agreed upon editorial mark would be placed next to it in the text. The librarians figured, and rightly so, that this would help preserve the integrity of the work for future generations."
As he spoke, the professor began shuffling through the stack of photographic plates beside him on the lectern.
"I have here – now where is it? Um, yes, I have here – you there on the back row with your head down – I have here a photographic plate of a fragment that was found among the fifty-two that the university purchased – a very rare, fourth century BC fragment containing three complete lines of Homer. Two of the lines' authenticity have been doubted for years, but now, because of the age and quality of this fragment, they must be accepted as truly Homeric."
At that moment, with a flourish, he pulled a plate from the stack. He paced a short distance, all the while holding the faded picture aloft. He turned it sideways and pointed as he spoke.
"Now here, as you can see –"
The professor stopped mid-sentence and stared intently at the photographic plate. He stared in silence for a full minute or more, oblivious to the polite coughs and giggles which began to fill the lecture hall. As if in great pain, he slowly shifted his gaze from the papyrus fragment to the dead space above the students. He stared at nothing, as one who hears distant thunder might stop and summon his concentration in an effort to pinpoint the direction from which the ominous rumbling was coming. Thus he stood, trying to grasp the impossible, the thing he knew to be false but which could only be true. From the roiling stream of his subconscious rose up a non-thought, an intuitive notion that existed only for a nanosecond, for his conscious mind grasped it immediately and clothed it in language. And in the instant that the thought crystallized, he knew he had been deceived.
How could he have been so naive, so blind? He stumbled back to the lectern, all the while clutching the incriminating plate. Grabbing his lecture notes, he began to read them verbatim to the class, as if the previous discussion had never occurred. His speech slowed, then quickened, halted, then resumed as the thought of the massive deception to which he had been subjected unfolded and grew, permeating even the quiet, still corners of his mind until it became a litany of betrayal and loss.
He had been taken in by his most brilliant student. It couldn't be! Why? Why? The question raced through his mind as after the lecture he strode, half angry, half sad, to his office. Dropping everything on his desk save the one photographic plate, he clutched it and stared at it and through it, mesmerized by the unintentional message it bore.
"I'll check the actual fragment. I must be wrong. It's impossible. Impossible!"
He spoke as he ran out the door, intent on disproving what he knew to be true. As he raced down the hallway, a student called to him from behind. Hearing the voice, the professor stopped and turned quickly towards the one he had esteemed so highly such a short time before.
"Why did you do it?"
"Do what?" The voice sounded genuinely confused.
"I know what you did – one of the estate's attorneys came across a set of photographic plates of the fragments and sent it to me. Why? Why did you do it? To appear brilliant? You ARE brilliant, you don't have to prove it. And now look at you. Your career is over before it even began. Dishonesty is not taken lightly in the academic world, you know."
He couldn't help himself. All the sorrow, the repulsion he felt showed itself in anger. He wanted to grab the young student and shake loose a plausible reason for an act which was inexcusable in academia. Instead, he ranted on, his voice rising ever higher.
"I can't let you get away with it. I'll have to report it. They'll crucify you, you know. For a moment's glory in print, you were willing to distort history, and now, well, you'll just damn well have to pay the piper."
The student stood quietly, listening to the professor. The face which had only moments before been a mask of confusion and guileless innocence slowly became as pale and cold as a Grecian marble. The necessity of pretense was gone, stripped away by the obvious truth of the professor's accusations. But there was no repentance, no shame visible in the student's countenance. A look of cold calculation was all that met the professor's indictment.
Excerpted from "Poison and Papyrus: a Magnolia Henley mystery" by Betty Younis. Copyright © 0 by Betty Younis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.