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Papyrus Reveals New Clues to Ancient World

James Owen
for National Geographic News
April 25, 2005
 
Classical Greek and Roman literature is being read for the first time in 2,000 years thanks to new technology. The previously illegible texts are among a hoard of papyrus manuscripts. Scholars say the rediscovered writings will provide a fascinating new window into the ancient world.

Salvaged from an ancient garbage dump in Egypt, the collection is kept at Oxford University in England. Known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the collection includes writings by great classical Greek authors such as Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Using a technique called multi-spectral imaging, researchers have uncovered texts that include

• parts of a lost tragedy by Sophocles, the 5th-century B.C. Athenian playwright;
•sections of a long-vanished novel by Lucian, the second-century Greek writer; and
• an epic poem by Archilochos, which describes events that led to the Trojan War.

Christopher Pelling, regius professor of Greek at Oxford University, said the works are "central texts which scholars have been speculating about for centuries."

Researchers hope to rediscover examples of lost Christian gospels which didn't make it into the New Testament, along with other important classical writings.

The papyrus manuscripts were found at the site of the disappeared town of Oxyrhynchus in central Egypt more than a hundred years ago. The text in much of the collection has become obscured or faded over time.

Researchers at Oxford University are now employing a digital imaging process that's able to reveal ink invisible to the naked eye. They say the technique should boost the amount of writing available to scholars studying the collection by around 20 percent.

Deciphering Technique

Dirk Obbink, a lecturer in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford, directs the research. He says the digital imaging process was first developed for researchers who studied Roman texts buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy in the first century.

"We're applying it for the first time to non-carbonized ancient manuscripts on papyrus, which was the paper of the ancient world," Obbink said. "Most of our collection comes from rubbish dumps, so it's been in contact with soil for thousands of years and can be quite dark."

The imaging process works by using different filters to isolate the waveband to which the hidden writing responds. "Some [text] respond[s] in the ultraviolet range, some in the infrared range," Obbink said. "The technique involves finding the exact right point at which the ink reflects at maximum contrast against the slightly less dark surface so you can read it."

Obbink says the research should add to the body of known work of standard classical authors such as Homer and Sophocles, as well as that of lesser known writers "who didn't survive either through accident of time or because they weren't as popular."

Sophocles wrote 120 plays, but only seven survived, among them Oedipus Rex and Antigone. "We have samples of all the rest in these papyrus fragments," Obbink said. "We're filling in the gaps incrementally. You're never going to get each and every word of 120 plays, but you will get a slice of what was available during the centuries when these rubbish mounds built up."

The fragments may also shed new light on texts that have survived only by being repeatedly copied over thousands of years. "These older [papyrus] texts can be more accurate, or preserve completely new readings," Obbink said.

Similarly, Biblical scholars can expect valuable new material to emerge as some gospels that weren't included in the New Testament didn't survive. "The texts that are in the Bible were selected out of a much larger body of work that once circulated," Obbink said. "We have samples of that material here."

Roman Period

He says the Oxyrhynchus collection holds a lot of information about the rise of Christianity during the Roman period. (Egypt became part of the Roman Empire after Cleopatra's fleet was defeated at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.).

"[Christianity] starts out as a small social phenomenon, then just takes over everything," Obbink said. "You can see other cultural sea changes taking place—changes in taxes, changes in rule. It's all reflected in the papyrus."

Oxyrhynchus, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of modern-day Cairo, rose to prominence under Egypt's Greek and Roman rulers. The town's papyrus-rich garbage heaps were excavated in the late 1890s by two Oxford University fellows, B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt. Researchers have been painstakingly piecing together the Oxyrhynchus papyri fragments ever since.

So far 65 volumes of transcripts and translations have been published by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, which owns the collection.

The latest volume includes details of fragments showing third- and fourth-century versions of the Book of Revelations. Intriguingly, the number assigned to "the Beast" of Revelations isn't the usual 666, but 616.

About 10 percent of the Oxyrhynchus hoard is literary. The rest consists of documents, including wills, bills, horoscopes, tax assessments, and private letters.

"It contains a complete slice of life," Obbink added. "There's everything from Sophocles and Homer to sex manuals and steamy novels. But it's in pieces, and it all has to be put back together."

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