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Armchair Archaeologists Asked to Decipher Ancient Papyri

By Katie Scott

26 July 11


The Egypt Exploration Society and Oxford University's Ancient Lives project has launched today and it is hoping to recruit "armchair archaeologists" to look through and catalogue the images of the papyri; and transcribe the text.


The papyri were recovered in the early 20th century from the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, which translates as the "City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish". The texts were written in Greek during a period when Egypt was under the control of a Greek (and later Roman) settler class.


Recovered treasures from this dig have included a "lost" gospel by an unknown author, which describes Jesus Christ casting out demons. However, the papyri also offer an insight into the normal, as well as spiritual, life of the inhabitants of this city. There is a note detailing how Aurelius the sausage-maker has taken out a loan for 9,000 silver denarii; a work contract giving the terms of employment of a public herald in sixth century Oxyrhynchus, and an edict of the Prefect Vestinus from 62 CE.


Literary works have included a papyrus of the Presocratic philosopher and poet Empedocles on the anatomy of the eye, Dictys of Crete's prose re-telling of the Trojan War story, new letters of the philosopher Epicurus and Euripides' lost play Melanippe the Wise.


The ancient artefacts -- which had been dumped as rubbish by the inhabitants -- were saved because of the location of the city. It was built on canals, which subsequently dried up and the water table lowered, leaving the papyri buried in dry sand. Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, who were both Fellows of Queens College, Oxford, excavated the site from 1896. Grenfell commented: "The flow of papyri soon became a torrent. Merely turning up the soil with one's boot would frequently disclose a layer."


Now -- however -- Oxford University is turning to the public to help decipher the finds. Visitors to the Ancient Lives website are shown an image of an extract. You can then click on a character in the image and then what you believe is the corresponding Greek character in a keyboard below.


There is an option to increase the font size, see a scale diagram of the whole fragment, and change the colour of the image to make it easier to view. A toggle option allows viewers to show and hide characters they have marked; and there is an auto option, which allows the system automatically move to the next character as you work.


Introducing the project, James Brusuelas, a Research Associate of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and member of the Ancient Lives team, says: "Many of these papyri have remained unstudied since they were discovered more than a century ago. Our goal is to increase the momentum by which scholars have traditionally identified known and unknown literary texts, and the private documents and letters that open up a window into the ancient lives of Graeco-Roman Egypt."



Photo, above: Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5072 (3rd century AD), Uncanonical Gospel. Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford.

Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford

Ancient Lives Project -


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