By Philip Sherwell, New York
They are tattered yellowing fragments of bygone civilisations, ancient manuscripts that open a remarkable window on previous millennia, including the earliest days of Christianity.
But papyrus scrolls are also now increasingly hot items in the distinctly 21st Century world of the online auction trade.
A rectangular scrap measuring about 4.5 inches by 1.5 inches and featuring 15 partial lines of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad in the elegant hand of a 4th Century Egyptian scribe was just [DEC] picked up by an unidentified European buyer for £16,000 after a feverish Internet auction battle.
That price was way above the posted estimated but is typical of the sums that collectors will now spend to lay their hands on these fingerprints from the past.
Indeed, it is not just modern art that has been setting jaw-dropping records at auction recently - so have ancient scrolls.
When a fragmentary parchment sheet from the 3rd century AD featuring portions of Paul’s epistle to the Romans was bought at Sotheby’s for £301,000 auctioneers and antiquity experts alike were stunned.
But although there is no suggestion of any impropriety in these particular sales, scholars are alarmed by the burgeoning online trade as some unscrupulous sellers also cash in.
They portray a free-ranging trade, particularly on the online auction giant eBay, where precious documents are carved up for sale, potentially stolen goods are trafficked and forgers can flourish.
Brice Jones, a papyrologist and lecturer in New Testament and Early Christianity at Concordia University in Montreal, has become an online scrolls sleuth, scouring auction websites for manuscripts that are often incorrectly labeled or their provenance unclear.
A few pieces are straightforward forgeries. Most famously, the papyrus fragment called the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife made headlines for apparently overturning nearly two millennia of theological teaching that Jesus was unmarried, but is now widely viewed as a forgery.
Much more distressingly, some sellers are dismembering papyrus books to sell items page-by-page, a financially profitable endeavor that amounts to little more than vandalism of ancient works.
One eBay papyrus seller turned out to be two sisters who ran an online beauty supplies store. They had inherited a Book of Revelation from which they cut individual pages to sell on an ad hoc basis to fund the wedding costs for one.
But Mr Jones has also identified a proliferation of scrolls being sold of which the origin and ownership is unknown or unclear.
Papyrus itself is a tall, fibrous reed plant that grew along the shallow banks of the Nile River in Egypt. “Papyrus” is the Latin form of the Greek word papuros, from which the English word “paper” is derived.
The papyri - mostly written in ancient Greek and Coptic - range from items such as rare biblical texts or the lines of the Iliad to hum-drum but fascinating daily records of book-keeping accounts or letters between family members.
All exert an incredible lure for collectors, historians, archaeologists and theologians.
But under American and Egyptian law, only antiquities that can be proven already to have been in private hands before the early 1970s can be traded.
Those rules are intended to prevent looting and end the export of papyrus that is often still found by Bedouin tribesmen, preserved by the arid desert conditions. But critics say that many sellers skirt or ignore the rules on Internet sites that are difficult to monitor and regulate.
The disapproving tone from academia also reflects a deep philosophical objection by many scholars to how manuscripts flow through private hands, fearing that priceless scripts will disappear forever amid the frenzy of trading.
“The study of ancient papyri is a fascinating field of historical inquiry, because these artifacts are the fingerprints of real people from a bygone era,” Mr Jones told The Telegraph.
“Each time I study a new papyrus, it is as if I am peeking over the shoulders of the scribe who wrote it, eavesdropping on a conversation that in many cases was meant to be private: an argument between a husband and wife, a divorce contract, an invitation to dinner, a letter between a father and son.
“But when private collectors acquire papyri for personal enjoyment and restrict scholarly access to them, the immediate consequence is that we lose valuable historical information that would otherwise advance our knowledge about ancient people.”
However, the owner of a small specialist Internet auction company, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, pushed back against these criticisms.
“We are scrupulous about making sure of ownership although not everyone is so fussy and it’s true that there are some people who know nothing who are out trying to make a buck in the wild West of the Internet,” he said.
“But some of these archaeologists and purists simply hate the fact that that any private person would own, buy or sell antiquities.
“They ignore the fact that items like this have always been collected. Indeed, some of these scripts were commissioned by the private collectors of that time.
“Collectors play a crucial role in preserving these items with their interest. A lot of these items would remain hidden, forgotten, fading away, unknown to the scholars, if there was not a market for them.”
Among specialists in the studies of early Christianity, there is particular concern about the emergence of eBay as a free-wheeling marketplace for antiquities, with low opening bids and often exaggerated language to lure in potential buyers.
An eBay spokesman, however, said that its150 million buyers and sellers “must ensure listings comply with our clear policy on artifacts. We work with regulators, law enforcement and other parties including the Egyptian Embassy to apply this policy, and if a listing of concern is identified we will require proof that it was legally exported and remove any listing where this proof is not provided.”
As a specialist who spends his life studying such scrolls, Mr Jones also has concerns for the preservation and conservation of sensitive centuries-old documents when they are handled by traders.
He cited then example of the famous papyrus codex of the Gospel of Judas, which published in 2006. It was stored by one of its owners in a safe-deposit box on Long Island for sixteen years, and then placed in a freezer by a potential buyer who thought that was the best way to preserve it.
“The results of these decisions were horrifying: the codex crumbled into many hundreds of tiny pieces and what was once a virtually complete codex was now badly deteriorated and difficult to restore,” he said.
The booming trade has clearly revealed to scholars how many papyri have survived down the centuries.
“This prompts the question: just how many ancient manuscripts are sitting in the basements, match boxes, drawers, safes, or shelves of private collectors around the globe?” Mr Jones asked recently.
“It is almost certain that many ancient manuscripts or fragments thereof are just sitting in the dark closets of their collectors, decaying and crumbling to pieces. The public needs to be aware of the importance of the preservation of antiquities, because once they are gone, they are gone forever.”