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