The Derveni papyrus was found near Derveni in 1962, a narrow mountain pass in the ancient Macedonian district of Mygdonia, about 12 km north of Thessaloniki. "Derveni" is a now obsolete modern Greek word for "glen" or "narrow passage", deriving, via Turkish, from the Persian derbent or derbend. The papyrus was in an ancient unlooted cist grave and was discovered during public works construction.
The papyrus roll was found carbonized among the debris of the funeral pyre that had been strewn over the slabs covering the tomb. Carbonized papyri are always the hardest to read, but advances in digital microscopy have permitted a better reading of faint or damaged letters throughout.
The deceased man had been cremated on an elaborate structure very close to the tomb; his ashes and bones were placed in a bronze crater which was put in the tomb. The papyrus is dated around the end of the 4th c BC (most likely between 340-320 BC) which makes it the oldest Greek papyrus to have been discovered on the Greek peninsula. The text is written in columns, of which 26 have been reconstructed.
There is widespread agreement among scholars that the Derveni papyrus has preserved the work of a book composed near the turn of the 5th century BC. It survives in the form of 26 fragments, which are conserved under glass in descending order of size, and has had to be painstakingly reconstructed. Many smaller fragments are still not placed. The papyrus is kept in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.
Following an account of funeral rites and eschatological beliefs, the main part of the text consists of a prose allegorical-philosophical interpretation of a theogonic poem written in dactylic hexameters and ascribed in antiquity to the mythical poet Orpheus.
The language abounds in ionic elements, but this does not prove its ionic origin, as ionic was the dialect employed for scientific prose irrespective of the author’s parentage. The author appears well-versed in ionic philosophy, actually citing Heraclitus of Ephesus. He is a follower of the physical theory of the philosopher Anaxagoras (5th c BC), though his own physical system seems to diverge at some points from Anaxagorean teaching.
Modern scholars who have written on the Derveni papyrus have associated it with the work of various ancient authors little known today, but the likeliest candidate seems to be the Athenian mantis Euthyphron, a contemporary of Socrates known to us from the works of Plato. The text at any rate does not end with the last written column; it must have continued to at least one more roll, now lost.
On 12 December 2015, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki held the official event to celebrate the registration of the Derveni Papyrus in the UNESCO Memory of the World.