Alicante Egyptologist Solves Enigma Of 4,000-Year-Old Manuscript

Image of an Egyptian manuscript.

Image of an Egyptian manuscript. Credit: Anonymous (Egypt)/ Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

AN Egyptologist from Alicante has solved a mystery surrounding a manuscript that dates back some 4,000 years.

The enigma was finally explained thanks to Marina Escolano-Poveda, a 37-year-old Spanish researcher who is currently a teacher at the University of Liverpool in England.

Since 1842, the papyrus has been stored in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin and its text is very well-known to Egyptologists across the world.

However, until now, none of these experts had been able to unravel the full meaning of ‘The Dispute of the Desperate with his Soul’. It would appear that it is a story similar to that of William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, in which the hero wonders if is it better to live or die. ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, is the famous quote.

‘Some believed to see in this text the reflections of a suicidal man; others, the dialogue between a deceased and a spirit, on the occasion of the last judgement’, explained Escolano-Poveda.

The original manuscript was missing its first pages

The manuscript was missing several pages of its introductory chapter which made it impossible to contextualise the remainder of the text, something which had baffled the experts for such a long time.

As luck would have it, Escolano-Poveda discovered the missing pages in the archives of a small museum in Mallorca. Her incredible find allowed the reader to finally understand the main protagonist of this almost 4,000-year-old philosophical tale that consists of the assembly of 72 pieces.

‘It’s about a dying man who describes in a colourful way how he sees his last hour coming’, explained the historian from Alicante.

‘Contrary to what we thought previously, the hero does not die at the end since it is clearly specified in the introduction that it is he himself who is the author of this text. That tells us that he survived. If we had to qualify the episode, we would say today that the narrator had a near-death experience’, she continued.

The Egyptologist added: ‘All the elements of what is called a near-death experience (NDE) in English are there: the description of a tunnel at the end of which a light shines; the splitting of the personality of the person who goes through this type of ordeal, and the fact that he sees himself in agony from outside his body’.

Escolano-Poveda found the missing pages in Mallorca

Revealing how she first happened upon the missing pages, the researcher explained: ‘It was during a congress, organised in 2010 in Mallorca, that I first came across this document in the form of a puzzle’.

‘Nobody knew what it was about. It must be said that, given its poor condition, no researcher had really bothered to look into it. But it intrigued me’, she continued.

At that time, Marina Escolano-Poveda was a doctoral student at the renowned Johns-Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States.

She subsequently spent several years studying the pages from every angle. ‘I was told that this document was written in demotic characters. Looking closer at the dynasty, I established it to be an early Middle Kingdom text’.

The Spanish Egyptologist also noted rare characters transcribed sometimes in black ink, sometimes in red ink. In particular, she noticed a mysterious hieroglyph in the shape of an elongated boat.

The mystery started unravelling in April 2015

It was thanks to a new examination of the document in April 2015 that she noted analogies between the Mallorcan text and the famous Berlin papyrus on the basis of this specific spelling.

‘I remember perfectly the moment when I had this revelation. It must have been 3 o’clock in the morning. I was listening to the song ‘Salir’ by the group Extremoduro. I then realised that the papyrus I was looking at was by the same author as that of La Dispute!, she exclaimed.

The researcher immediately wrote to James Allen, her thesis director and professor at Brown University in Rhode Island. His nocturnal e-mail consisted of only one question: ‘Do you think, in view of the elements that I submit to you here, that the two texts from Berlin and Mallorca are from the same scribe?’. She quickly replied in the affirmative.

Another Egyptology expert, Richard Parkinson, a professor at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, also validated the discovery.

Escolano-Poveda published the first article on her findings in 2017 in the prestigious German journal Zeitschrift für Äegyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde.

She later made more discoveries in Mallorca

She returned several times to Mallorca and made other discoveries. ‘The pieces of papyrus kept on-site include extracts from other books’, she detailed.

Among them was ‘The Pastor’s Tale’, which narrates a meeting between a cattle herder and a goddess. ‘A tale that we tended to think of as a moral tale, as a deity seems to be trying to seduce a human into his bed. My hypothesis is quite different: the goddess seems to me mainly interested in the peasant’s cattle’, the Egyptologist suggested.

Also included in the Mallorca papyrus are extracts from a famous liturgical work: The Book of the Dead. This literary work lists the blessings that each deceased must pronounce when crossing the kingdom of the dead.

A few months ago, Bernard Mathieu published some of the researcher’s conclusions in one of his latest books – La Littérature de l’Egypte vieille, Vol. III, published by Belles Lettres, 2023.

The researcher hopes to organise an exhibition in Berlin

Marina Escolano-Poveda now dreams of organising an exhibition in Berlin where the separate parts of the story she has been studying for so long would be reunited.

‘I would like this event to restore the papyrus of Mallorca. On this occasion, we could study it and perhaps retrace its history’ she said.

It is a story that begins in an auction room in 1837 in London, where ancient documents are scattered. ‘I found traces of this auction at Sotheby’s. One of the lots, in good condition, landed in Germany’, she explained.

‘The other, less well preserved, must have been bought by a Frenchman because the paper that serves as the support for the fragments that I examined resembles that used at the time by the Louvre and the National Library’, she continued.

Escolano-Poveda now wants to establish the conditions under which this second batch landed, in part, in Mallorca in 1913. ‘I say “in part”, because I know that other fragments are in New York today’, she added. The investigation appears to be far from over, as reported by

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Written by

Chris King

Originally from Wales, Chris spent years on the Costa del Sol before moving to the Algarve where he is a web reporter for The Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news. Got a news story you want to share? Then get in touch at