It served first as a notebook for ancient painters and then as part of a mummy's wrapping. Now, a first century B.C. parchment believed to contain the earliest cartography of the Greek-Roman era will be on display next month in the northern city of Turin.
The Papyrus of Artemidorus tells a tale of more than 2,000 years of art and culture.
Egyptologist Alessandro Roccati, of the University of Turin, said the parchment was "extraordinary" in that it "conserves direct and ancient testimony that helps reconstruct history." Roccati was not involved in the project.
The parchment's story begins around the mid-first century B.C., when a copyist in Alexandria, Egypt, began working on a blank parchment to copy the second of 11 books by Greek geographer Artemidorus of Ephesus.
"This papyrus is returning the most ancient geographic map of the classical world and helps write new pages of ancient history," said Claudio Gallazzi, a professor of Papirology at the University of Milan who has studied the parchment since the 1990s.
During the transcription, the copyist left room in the Greek text to insert drawings of maps, and later took it to a painter's studio to have them drawn. Yet the painter designed only a partial map, which appears to be what Artemidorus believed was the shape of the southwestern Iberian peninsula.
"The painter must have drawn the wrong map and as soon as he realized it, he stopped (working)," said Gallazzi, who also directed the papyrus' restoration. The map has no names and looks incomplete. He probably should have painted a generic map first, instead of a specific one. By then, the papyrus was ruined and it was useless to go on."
A few years later, scholars began using the blank spaces on the nearly 10-foot-long parchment for rough drafts and to keep a catalog of drawings for clients. The drawings include pictures of real animals, such as giraffes, tigers and pelicans, as well as mythical ones, such as the griffin, marine snake or a dog with wings, Gallazzi said.
He added that the drawings were used as an index of mosaics and frescos that the painters would offer to their customers. At least two scholars also used the papyrus for practice and drew heads, feet and hands until there were no blank spots left.
"After using it for decades as a catalog, the papyrus was later ... sold as pulp paper," Gallazzi said.
The parchment surfaced again in the Nile Valley, where it was used as a wrapping for a mummy, lying in the ground for 1,800 years, Gallazzi said.
In the early 1900s, local excavators recovered and sold the wrapping - known as cartonnage - to an Egyptian collector who owned it for around 50 years. After passages around Europe, a German collector bought it, opened the cartonnage and recovered the fragments of the papyrus.
The parchment looks scrappy and has holes. But the papyrus had yet another surprise.
"At some point, somebody wet it. Where there are holes, the ink was stamped upside down on the other side of the parchment," Gallazzi said. Because of that, even though parts of the paper were lost, the drawings on those parts were not.
The papyrus - which was bought by a foundation for $3,369,850 - will be put on display at Turin's Bricherasio Palace starting Feb. 8 for three months.
Organizers said they were planning to lend it to other museums in Europe and the United States before placing it in Turin's Egyptian Museum.