The Oxyrhynchus Project: Desktop Papyrology

el-Bahnasa is a sand-blasted village about 100 miles south of Cairo. Once known as Oxyrhynchus (“City of the Sharp-Nose Fish”), it prospered under the Greeks, and became largely Christian under the Romans and Byzantines. It had a gradual decline until about the 7th century, when Arab invasions finished it off. Its structures–including a number of churches and monasteries–were looted for building stone, leaving behind only a single Greek column. Their precious stores of documents were dumped in a garbage pit and forgotten.

And that’s where Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, of The Queen’s College, Oxford, found them in 1896/7. As they began to dig in the harsh, wind-driven sand, they came across a fragment of the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (long before Nag Hammadi), and then a piece of the Gospel of Matthew. By the time they were done, they would have half a million pieces of papyrus dating from the 1st to 6th century, and including many of the masterworks of classical literature, scripture, and early Christian texts.

They set about studying their haul, inventing the new discipline of papyrology (the study of ancient manuscripts) in the process. Although there weren’t any earth-shaking finds–no second part of the Poetics–the discoveries were still important. Numerous Biblical manuscripts, Plato, Thucydides, Greek lyric poetry, and a vast quantity of private documents (deeds, wills, letters, leases, etc) were all in found in the dump.

A century later, a significant portion of the Oxyrhynchus papyri remains unedited and unavailable to the public. Examining, measuring, and transcribing every fragment is hugely labor intensive, and there aren’t enough grad students in the world to do it all.

That’s why the Ancient Lives Project was created. A collaborative effort by Oxford, the Egypt Exploration Society, the Imaging Papyri Project, and other groups and institutions, Ancient Lives is trying to speed up the transcription process by crowd sourcing and computerization. This means that you can help decipher the Oxyrhynchus papyri.

At the project site, you can choose to transcribe or measure. Make sure you do the very brief tutorial, but the process is simple. For transcribing, find the centerpoints for each letter, and then pick the letter you think matches it the best. Once you’ve guessed as much as you can, just save it and move on to the next. Measuring is a similar process: stretch a line between various points to mark off the margins and the lines spaces, and then submit.

I’m assuming that many people will be working on the same texts, with results analyzed by computer and then vetted by humans. It’s simply a part of a larger effort, but it could speed up the transcription and identification of fragments, allowing them to be published. It’s also about the coolest way to be an archaeologist without ever leaving your home.

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.