The above film was created by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to celebrate a decade of AHRC funding and examine how it has impacted a research story than spans over 100 years! The Oxyrhynchus Papyri is a collection of papyri excavated in the late 19th and early 20th century from the rubbish dumps of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.

The collection, which consists of around  500,000 fragments of papyri , was initially a random mass of everyday papers that the citizens of Oxryrhynchus had thrown away – including  private letters, shopping lists, tax returns, horoscopes, and government circulars .

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project is currently led by Professor  Nickolaos Gonis from University College London . In this film we hear how the project, which is seeking to  conserve, transcribe and publish  the entire Papyri collection, has been running for over 30 years – funded for the last decade by the AHRC.

AHRC funding is allowing the continued conservation, preservation, transcription and publication of the papyri. Crucially,  the AHRC’s funding has also allowed time and resources for the researchers to engage the general public in the research . From exhibitions and open days, to projects that allow the public the chance to transcribe fragments online, the project is committed to providing access to the collection to anyone and everyone with an interest in this ancient jigsaw puzzle.

In a lively anecdote that features in the film, Oxyrhynchus expert, Professor Peter Parsons, tells how  in 2012 a special volume of Papyri was published to coincide with the London Olympics. One of the fragments was a contract which asked the father of a young wrestler to throw match for a small fee . Not in the Olympic spirit of course but, like a great deal of the Oxryrynchus Papyri, it can’t help but capture the imagination.

A few words about Oxyrhynchus, the city.

The year is 1896, 8 years after the Ottoman Empire’s Egypt came under British rule, when a couple of young archaeologists from Queen’s College at Oxford University set off in search of long lost treasures of ancient Greek literature.

Now a wasteland, up until the Arab invasion of 641 AD the little town of Oxyrhynchus, 160 km (about 100 miles) south of Cairo, had been a booming metropolis.

During Hellenic times (323 – 30 BCE), Oxyrhyncus was the third largest city in Egypt. But when Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt got there, what they found was a garbage dump. Literally.

All the city’s trash, accumulated between 323 BCE to 641 AD. Almost a thousand year’s worth.

Miraculously, the site also turned out to have the largest cache of Early Christian Manuscripts ever found.

Hundreds of thousands of tiny bits and pieces of ancient papyri, membra disiecta, covered with tiny bits and pieces of dust. Most of it has yet to be deciphered, but it’s estimated that only 10% of it is actually literature. The rest are administrative records, personal letters and shopping lists. But there remain an estimated 50,000 documents to still be filtered through (with tweezers!), identified, carefully cataloged and digitalized.

Last, but definitely not least, a couple of longer video with interviews of some of the world’s most eloquent and erudite codicologists specializing in ancient papyri. Highly recommended.

This one is about the project to crowdsource transcriptions of the millions of tiny fragments that make up the Oxyrhynchus cache.


Featured Image Credit: Radiolab

Other images: wikipedia

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