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| Human World on Aug 09, 2011

Armchair archaeologists wanted, no experience necessary

Archaeologists need your help deciphering ancient papyri fragments written in Greek, dating from the third century BC to seventh century AD.

Would you like to transcribe ancient Egyptian papyrus fragments written in Greek? Oh, you don’t know Greek … not a problem. Researchers at Oxford University have devised a way for you to help them transcribe these documents, even if you don’t know your thetas from your omegas. Hundreds of thousands of images of these fragments, owned by the Egypt Exploration Society, have been posted online, and a simple web interface can guide you in identifying most of the Greek alphabets.

Pieces of papyri, written during a period when Egypt was controlled by Greek settlers, were recovered in the early 20th century at the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, known as ‘City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish’ (a sacred fish of the Nile). Victorian archaeologists excavating rubbish mounds left by the city’s inhabitants collected the fragments, mostly written in Greek, and well preserved in dry desert conditions. To this day, many of them have yet to be transcribed.

Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2652, an Ink drawing showing the goddess Agnoia from an illustrated edition of Menander's comedy called Perikeiromene. The document is dated to 2nd or 3rd century AD. Image credit: Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford.

Even though the city of Oxyrhynchus is long gone, most of the papyri left in the rubbish mounds vividly reveal everyday events in the lives of her residents. These include personal letters, business transactions, invitations to feasts, a horoscope, and a circus program that included chariot racing. There’s even an order to arrest a Christian. Archaeologists studying the papyri have come to know some of the residents: Thonis the fisherman, Aphynchis the embroiderer, Anicetus the dyer, and Philammon the greengrocer. A sausage-maker named Aurelius took out a loan of 9,000 silver denarii. Sarapias, in 127 AD, wrote a letter requesting her pregnant daughter be brought home so she could be present for the birth of her grandchild. They even found cartoon-like drawings depicting the labors of Heracles.

Fragments of important biblical and literary documents were also found in the rubbish mounds. Rare connections to early Christianity were discovered in ancient Greek accounts of the old and new Testaments. One intriguing find is a ‘lost’ gospel, author unknown, that describes Jesus Christ casting out demons. A fragment from the Book of Revelations assigns the number 616 to the Beast, not 666. Or was that 665? Writings of classical Greek authors, known only by reference because their works had been lost during the Middle Ages, were recovered; among them were the songs of Greek poetess Sappho, the comedic writings of Menander, and works of Callimachus, a Greek poet and scholar of the great Library of Alexandria.

Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5072, the Uncanonical Gospel, dated 3rd century AD. Image Credit: Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford.

What else awaits discovery in the Oxyrhynchus papyri collection? You could help archaeologists uncover new insights into the lives of Oxyrhynchus residents, discover yet unknown writings from the age of early Christianity, and find long-lost Greek literary works. Give it a try, check out the Ancient Lives Project web site. There’s an interactive tutorial on how to transcribe a papyrus fragment. If you’d like to help out, you’ll need to create a user account so your transcriptions will be automatically recorded for researchers, and it will give you access to an online forum where you can discuss the project with other volunteers.

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