At Bulgaria's National Museum of History, there lives a book comprising six pages of beaten 24-carat gold covered with Etruscan script, one of the few writing systems scholars have yet to decipher. It features illustrations of a horse-rider, a mermaid, a harp and soldiers [source: BBC News].
According to reports, the book, exhibited in 2003, was estimated at about 2,500 years old. It was found along the Strouma River in southwestern Bulgaria in an old tomb, and was donated to the museum by the finder, who remained anonymous. Its age and authenticity were confirmed by two independent scientists, whose names also remain unknown.
This book is often cited as the world's oldest book because it is the oldest book containing several pages that we know about. There are older pages around but not bound together in a book. But the case isn't closed.
The question of what is the oldest book in the world will likely never be answered. First, there's the question of what exactly is a book. Books are slippery artifacts. Think of your favorite novel. It has a physical presence, a specific shape and form that fits on a shelf and requires dusting.
It also has a nonphysical form — the story itself, what it means to you and the memories and enjoyment it conjures. So is the book a mere physical presence, or is the content more important than the shape? Or do they both play a role? Take it a step further and ask what if your favorite book wasn't printed but handwritten, would it still be a book? What about if you read it on an electronic device?
If printing defined what a book was, then the oldest book would be the Gutenberg Bible, printed in about 1450. Of course, that was printed with moveable type. Chinese cultures were printing pages of booklike structures using carved wood plates and simple presses hundreds of years before Gutenberg.
Now take the Egyptian pharaohs. Their scribes were creating songs and prayers to them close to 3,000 years ago, but these were on papyrus scrolls, which could be considered a book, albeit with only one very long page.
"These are questions scholars are still wrestling with," said Laurent Ferri, curator of rare books and manuscripts at Cornell University whom we interviewed in 2010. "For me, a book would be defined by having a binding and supporting a world view."
By this definition, the collection of clay tablets maintained by Cornell — also the largest collection in the world — wouldn't be considered the world's oldest books. They aren't bound, and most are legal proceedings or financial accountings and do not espouse a worldview.
With his own definition in mind, Ferri said his bet on the oldest books in the world would be Homer's "Iliad," and the "Epic of Gilgamesh." Indeed, the British Museum's version of the Gilgamesh tale, written on clay tablets, dates to about the seventh century B.C.E. However, the tablets aren't bound, so they're technically not a book, but they do come close, especially in the sense they propose a certain view of the world. But we don't really know when the stories started or how they evolved.
"This is another situation to consider," Ferri said. "These (two stories) are the product of a very long oral tradition. We know roughly when the text was fixed, but the stories pre-existed the physical book."
And so the questions turn. Some people think the Bible was written shortly after the world was created, making it the oldest book. Yet biblical scholars know the books that make up the Bible were written over many centuries and that many of the stories included in it were set down centuries after the events they recorded happened.
Bringing religion, or worldviews, into the question begets more twists and turns. The I Ching, the foundation book for Taoist philosophy, was allegedly written by Lao-Tze more than 2,000 years ago. Pharaonic texts exist with a similar vintage. There are likely other more obscure religions that claim to have a toehold in centuries further in the past and that their more recent printings are merely modern manifestations of ancient texts.
For Ferri, the quest for the world's oldest book is just that — a quest.
"If you find the oldest book you find the oldest truth, the oldest revelation," he said. "This is a revelation of original things; this is what humans always look for. So, we ask the questions again and again, 'What is the oldest?"
So, the question of what is the world's oldest book will likely never be answered conclusively, and this may not be a bad thing. The simple asking of the question seems to lead to insight, whether from an archaeological perspective or a philosophical perspective. And it addresses the ultimate point of books (whether they're on clay tablets or online), summed up by Ferri: "We wouldn't be human without books."
Originally Published: Mar 23, 2010