Thursday, February 02, 2006


Last night I lost Wanadoo again, and I watched a documentary on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. (Pronounced oxie-rink-us).

(If this is too frightening for you to face, feel free to pop over to my Arty Blog for something a bit more light-hearted.)

Nerd that I am, I typed out everything I could remember before I forgot it. As it has been ages since I wrote an educational post, I thought you'd like to learn about this amazing historical find.
No changes or corrections as I can't be bothered but it's all here:

The Greek Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus was discovered in 1888 by Flinders Petrie, after having been preserved under hot dry sand for 1500 years. Through the Archaeological Society, an excavation expedition was led by Grenfell and Hunt.

The city Quarters were named after Egyptian gods, and divided up by a grid of streets. Home to one of the largest theatres in the ancient world which held more than 8,000 spectators. All the amenities of a prosperous ancient city.

They decided to excavate the rubbish mounds outside the city walls, at one time 30 feet high. Found piles of papyri in good condition, detailing life in the city. The first fragment was an early Christian document of the early sayings of Jesus, 2nd C AD, the Gospel of Thomas, in existence till then only as a Coptic gospel in Ethiopia. It had not been read for 2000 years.

First dig - 1000 fragments from 1st-6th Century. Mostly in Greek. Some of the giants of the ancient world.

After 10 years they brought 500,000 fragments back to Oxford, and a century later, nearly 80% are still undeciphered. They are stored in flat boxes, in "folders" (i.e. between the pages) of the Oxford University Gazette. The researchers never know what they're going to get when they turn a page.

Only 1% have been published. Papyrologists are abstract thinkers, puzzle solvers, detectives. Before deciphering they may have to painstakingly piece together hundreds of fragments to make one document.

Medieval scholars limited collections to Classical Greek writings of the 5th century - not for literary value but to improve their Greek language skills. So until the discovery of Oxyrhynchus, only about 2% of the Greek writers survived.

Many writers whose names and reputations were known, but texts lost, were rediscovered. Hadn't been read since the age of the Roman Empire!

Apparently, Greeks invented the sitcom. Menander established the ordinary people in extraordinary situations that became the basis for classical western comedy.
His scripts are even written just as people spoke (koinonia), unlike most Greek plays which were in high language (kathaverusa).

For the first time, it was discovered that Sophocles wrote satyr plays.

The writings of Sappho were lost until this discovery also, and all that scholars had of her 9 volumes were the few lines quoted in the texts of other writers. She was the first ancient writer to describe the moon as "silvery", feelings as "bittersweet", and to analyse the symptoms of love: the delicate fire under the skin, the whistling in the ears, the dry throat, the trembling limbs, the inability to speak, a feeling of being close to death.

Ancient Greeks became more humanised and less deified thanks to the discovery of legal documents and personal letters. Their sensitive side was revealed to historians, where before they had been very much put on a pedestal.

There were legal cases - like one in which a weaver's wife left him, so he remarried. His ex-wife and her mother attacked the poor woman in the street, heavily pregnant, and she lost the child.

Or a man locked his family in the cellar for a week, then stripped his stepdaughters bare and whipped them before setting them on fire.

Scholars have taken more than a century to reconstruct, decipher, and publish only a fraction of the vast collection. But today that process may speed up, thanks to a NASA technology adopted by Brigham Young University in Utah: multi-spectral imaging, usually used to peer into space and "look past" light obstacles such as gas clouds. It is near-infrared on the spectrum.

MSI can even see text on papyrii that has been scrubbed out and written over (known as a palimpsest). The near-IR light can see past the newer ink to the more ancient ink that is carbon-based, and in which most of the Oxyrhynchus texts are written.

It may help scientists process the papyrii up to 10 times faster, and the images are being published on the internet for a greater number of papyrologists to decipher.

There is also a plan to scan through the layers of paint and gesso to read layer upon layer of papyrus recycled as papier mache mummy masks. Thanks to this new technology, there is more literature to emerge in the years to come.

Links I've just discovered, if you want to know more:

Oxy at Oxford

Wikipedia rarely disappoints

P.S. The Oxyrhynchus is a "sharp-nosed" fish, also a deity after which the city was named.


M. said...

That's awesome! I learned something new today. Love geeky posts. :) I did want to be an archaeologist once...


Jia Li said...

learn something new everyday

Rox said...

So coool! Fascinating post thank you :o)

Olivia said...

Mers - so did I! It was after I went through the paleontologist phase.

JL and Rox - you're welcome, girls.

Anonymous said...

big words. very frightening!

M. said...

Hehe. Before general archaeology I just wanted to focus on Egypt. My parents strongly discouraged me from doing either...

Would've been fun ending up as archaeologists together. :)


Rox said...

I actually studied archeology as a minor for 2 years in Fribourg in Switzerland. Well maybe that's putting it strongly... I was supposed to study History as a main subject and History of Art and Archaeology as side subjects, that was what I had signed up for. But... it sounded good on paper but was actually really boring. And when I heard that the yearly obligatory 6 week digs were somewhere in a mud ditch in Switzerland I decided to go back to England and study art instead (Btw the university system in Switzerland is completely different to American Unis as far as I understand)

Olivia said...

Anonanon - and here I thought you were a polymath! (another big word)

Mers - yes on a dig site discovering some ancient lost civilisation! I am fascinated by Egyptology too.

Rox and Rebecca, do you remember in course A when Nicole .....? came to lectre about Egyptian gods? She was great, and I saw her in a documentary some months later.

Rox, I thought you did architecture which is why I gave you those big old pencil leads once.
And I agree, no thanks to a muddy ditch in Switzerland. I'd actually prefer the desert.

Tell me a bit about the Swiss university system.

Rox said...

I didn't actually do the A course. And no I didn't do architecture. Only those lil bits we all did at Christie's.
As for the Swiss universities... would be a bit lengthy and difficult to explain. But the studies are longer and although the first major exam you do after 3 years is now compared to a BA, it in itself is not considered a completed university degree. The completed degree is compared to a Masters. Also you are pretty much left on your own to choose the lectures and seminars you want to go to and with some restrictions also in which year. There has been some reform lately but basically that's it.

Olivia said...

Rox - a thousand apologies...I was thinking of Andrea!

Thanks for the enlightenment. The Swiss system sounds exacting.

Steliano Ponticos said...

Olivia it seems the plan of the city is different from usual egyptian cities. maybe becuase it is hellenic.

Also the plays in koinonia are very surprising. But this is not the only ancient greek comedy..Lysistrata for instance is very funny even for modern humour..but its not daily people and situations

comedy is named after a demi-god comus who is the god of daily life..

knowing the life style directly through records is very rare...usually its through art and stuff like that so this must be the most lively description of an ancient life style we ever had..

thank you olive for this very interesting post

Olivia said...

Heyyyy Steli, yes, building a city on a grid was the Hellenic plan - Pompeii was the same. So why should Brits criticise American cities for being built the same way? As if Anglo-Saxon street mazes are better.

Yes, Lysistrata was very lewd, but the thing about Menander is his plays were probably something like Friends.

I love that extra point about Comus. So much of what we take for granted came from the ancients, Greeks especially.

Yes, well they had plenty about the Romans from rubbish dumps, even the ones along Hadrian's Wall - but as I said, this is the only thing that strips ancient Greek life of its sterility.

I am glad that I am remembering how to write informative posts once again.

Steliano Ponticos said...

I totally agree on the greek plan for addition, if the city is on the sea side...the grid is made of roads parallel to the costline and roads going into the sea...and merci

Rox said...

Lysistrata is actually my ebay name cause its my favourite Greek play. I first read it in German where the Spartan women were given a Bernese accent (as in Berne the Swiss capital). That was one of the things that made me laugh out loud. But mostly of course the women's treatment of men. Hilarious!
I've read quite a few Greek plays but none by Menander. Wonder if those are available at all? Shall have a search. :o)

Olivia said...

Steli - de rien.

Rox - Hellooooo Lysistrata...! Know what else was funny? How everyone in the movie Alexander had Irish accents.