Sacrum - profanum. The Apocalypse in a Latrine
The parchment was found in 2009 during archaeological digs led by the Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk in the Main City near the St. Mary’s Church, by Klesza Street 4. The artefact was discovered in an urban latrine established at the end of the 14th century, however, other artefacts found indicate that it was still in use in the 16th century.
The reversibly written parchment is in the shape of a strongly elongated and slightly widening rectangle, measuring 9.9 cm by 2.7 – 3.8 cm. It is most probably parchment manufactured out of kidskin. The height of the lowercase letters is approximately a millimetre and letters with ascenders (such as k, b, d) are approximately 2 millimetres. The text was written in iron-gall ink made out of ground gall wasps (insects), iron salt in the form of vitriol and gum Arabic.
Tests and analysis of the writing performed by Tomasz Płóciennik from the Faculty of Papyrology at the University of Warsaw delivered evidence that the text is much older, which is further proved by the writing being identified as the Carolingian miniscule, used only until the 12th century.
On the found fragment of parchment is written the text from the fourth Book of Ezra, also called the Apocalypse of Ezra. It is an apocryphal book of the Old Testament, written in approximately 100 CE. The original translation from Semitic to Greek is lost and later translations, including Latin, are extremely rare. World collections, besides the Gdańsk fragment, possess merely six early-medieval codices containing the aforementioned text. The preserved fragment on the first page is 4 Ezra 6.17-32 (left column) and 7.7-12 (right column), the reverse: 4 Ezra 7.47-53 (left column) and 7.77-89 (right column).
The text on the discovered fragment is the description of the second vision with a list of signs, which will precede the end of the world, as well as the fragment of the third vision recounting the Last Judgement as well as the fate awaiting the souls of the just and the sinners.
The place of discovery of this artefact, rousing so much controversy, may indicate not the conscious profanation of the text, but the recycling of old manuscripts which was a common practice. There are numerous examples of utilization of fragments of older manuscripts: for the covering of wooden linings of books, their re-use for writing or adaptation into items such as clothing (vests or sandals).
In the case of the discovered parchment from Gdańsk, it is extremely difficult to identify its secondary function, however, most probably is had been incorporated into the cover of a newer book.
Curator: Ewelina Drozd-Wadyl
Text: Ewelina Drozd-Wadyl
Photography: Joanna Szmit
Graphic Design: Paulina Markowska
Translation: Paulina Markowska
The Ancient Object of the Month can be viewed in the lobby of the Naturalists’ House at Mariacka Street 25/26 in Gdańsk.