Johnson Papyrus


Herbals are directories of plants, their properties, and their medicinal uses. Herbals most likely were at first not illustrated, but in late antiquity they acquired illustrations. This fragment of a leaf from an illustrated herbal from Hellenistic Egypt shows a plant that is possibly Symphytum officinale, or comfrey. The herbal is made of papyrus, a plant that flourished in the valley of the Nile, and the text is in Greek, the language of science throughout the eastern Mediterranean at this time. The fragment is probably from a copy of the herbal of Dioscorides of Anazarbus, a first-century Greek physician born in Asia Minor whose work became the foundation text of medieval botany. The fragment is thought to be the earliest surviving example of an illustrated herbal. It is not known for certain whether this fragment originally was part of a roll (the usual format of papyrus manuscripts until the later Roman period) or a codex (the book form with which we are now familiar). The date of the fragment suggests that most likely it was from a codex, as does the fact that it is written and illuminated on both sides, which would have made it difficult to consult in roll form.

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Physical Description

Papyrus fragment : 227 × 111 millimeters


  • Found by J de M Johnson in 1904 at Antinoe, Egypt, while working for the Egypt Exploration Fund. Recto. Colored drawing of the plant sumfuion [Symphitum officinale], followed by the left hand section of eight lines of text, in an uncial hand. Verso. Colored drawing of the plant flommos [identity uncertain], followed by the right hand section of ten lines of text, in an uncial hand.


Last updated: April 11, 2012