Monday, April 18, 2005

Οξυρυνχος Revisited

Two thousand years ago, the Greek city of Oxyrhynchus stood along a branch of the Nile river. Once the Egyptian village of Per-medjed, Oxyrhynchus rose to prominence and became a regional capital in Roman times. Like most capitals, it produced mountains (literally!) of paper, which was periodically dumped outside of town. Unlike most capitals, however, it was in the arid Egyptian countryside. Those scraps of paper survived, buried in mounds, until 1896, when Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt began excavations. Some 800 boxes of documents and scraps of documents were recovered. Some have been cleaned and translated. About 90% of it consisted of government documents, receipts, licenses, etc. About 10% was literature--some of which had been thought lost forever. Volumes are periodically published as to the latest findings and translations.

Many of the documents were illegible, as the ink had faded into illegible stray marks. Now, using infrared technology, scientists have discovered they can recover these lost writings. The newspapers are hyping it up as "the 'classical holy grail' that may rewrite the history of the world." Well... not too likely. Certainly it is exciting. But so far Oxyrhynchus is not Boğazköy, nor even Nag Hammadi. Based on the scraps already translated, we know that most of them are going to be farm reports, census records, etc. Important, yes. Each document is an invaluable link to history. Perhaps we'll find unknown works of Menander, Euripidies, or Sophocles. But even if we don't, we will have a clearer picture as to daily life in a world a hundred generations removed from our own. And that, my friends, is newsworthy.


At 1:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonder if they'll find many "to do" lists in all the rubble. I think a peek into daily life would be most interesting.


At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!


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