STORY WRITTEN BY CANDICE MONHOLLAN
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PHILADELPHIA >> It has been nothing short of amazing some treasures have survived millennia, including something as simple as writings on a papyrus.
The Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology is displaying some of these remarkable artifacts in its exhibit, “Sacred Writings: Extraordinary Texts of the Biblical World.”
“When we first started planning our own part of the city wide celebration of Pope Francis visit, we knew we wanted to focus on key objects that would bring the public into contact with something deeply meaningful,” said Steve Tinney, associate curator-in-charge of the Babylonian Section.
the Penn Museum put a special focus on the ancient Near East, Egypt and the Bible Lands because of Pope Francis’ visit.
This limited-time-only display runs through Nov. 8.
“We chose … our greatest treasures which forge a connection between ancient and modern worshipers,” Tinny said. “We wanted to show how they resonated through time and into the Americas.”
One of the highlights of the exhibit is the Sumerian flood tablet.
It’s a clay tablet in Sumerian cuneiform from the site of Nippur in Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq, from around 1650 BCE. It tells the story of a flood which closely parallels the biblical story of Noah.
“After working for 30 years with ancient tablets, there is still a thrill picking up a flood tablet and thinking about how it came to be,” Tinney said. “Almost 4,000 years ago, an individual — a highly trained scholar — sat on a southern porch in … Iraq. He painstakingly prepared the table, rolled out, formed it and let it dry so he could write on it. He then wrote down a story that was deeply meaningful to him — a story about a flood that almost destroyed humanity and about a survivor.”
Another highlight comes from Egypt in the form of fragments of papyrus.
“It’s a papyrus fragment which contains the beginning of the gospel of Saint Matthew,” said Jennifer Wegner. “It’s one of the oldest gospel fragments in the entire world.”
The fragment, written in ancient Greek, dates back to the third century CE and was once part of a codex, or book.
It was found in one the most unlikeliest of places.
“In 1896, two young, British archeologists proposed an excavation,” Wegner said. “They began to work on ancient mounds, which turned out were Egyptian trash mounds. One the second day of their excavation, they found this fragment of the gospel of Saint Matthew. It was the oldest gospel fragment in the world.”
Other treasures on display include an illuminated Latin Bible from the 13th century, the first authorized Roman Catholic translation of the New Testament Bible into English from 1582, the first complete Bible printed in the New World and translated into the Native American Massachusett language and an Italian illustrated manuscript copy of Werner Rolevinck’s history of the world from the 15th century, plus more.
“This project was an immense pleasure to work on,” Tinney said.
Though it has been an enjoyable experience putting together the exhibition, it has also been a pleasant experience to see the reactions of the visitors as well.
“What has always struck me is the reaction people have to this papyrus,” Wegner said. “This humble-looking manuscript evokes responses that are awe-filled, or reverent, or simply just filled with joy. It’s an amazing to thing to watch people see this manuscript for the first time.”
Contact Candice Monhollan at 610-235-2652.