This isn’t the way things are done. Usually great manuscript finds are studied and published by experts before they are put online, often as part of a grand digitization project like the one described in this issue (“World’s Great Libraries Go Digital”). But, faced with the enormity of their task, the scholars charged with studying the 500,000 papyrus fragments known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri are now enlisting the public’s help with transcribing and identifying the ancient texts—no experience required.
The papyri were discovered at the close of the 19th century by two British archaeologists—Grenfell and Hunt—who had embarked on their first official excavation at an Egyptian city 100 miles south of Cairo and 10 miles west of the Nile, known in antiquity as Oxyrhynchus. a While digging through the ancient dumps at the site, Grenfell and Hunt hit archaeological gold—countless pieces of discarded papyrus from the Roman-period city. Preliminary study revealed religious and literary texts both known and unknown—from Gnostic gospels to Greek plays. By far the majority of the fragments, however—about 90 percent—are what scholars call documentary papyri: lists, bills, notes, letters, wills and orders that documented the everyday life of the people of Oxyrhynchus. These are sometimes even more valuable to scholars than the literary papyri because they offer unprecedented insight into ordinary life in an ancient Roman colony.
Even after more than a century of work and more than 70 published volumes, many thousands of the papyrus fragments have yet to be measured, transcribed and identified. (The 50-year publication process of the Dead Sea Scrolls appears speedy by comparison.) That’s where you come in. Thanks to the University of Oxford’s Ancient Lives Project, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can now contribute to the study of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.
All of the 35mm images of the papyri have been uploaded to the Ancient Lives website, along with a brief history of Oxrhynchus and associated research. After viewing short tutorials on how to transcribe and measure fragments, the work begins. Users are shown an image of a piece of papyrus and can immediately begin measuring and marking the Greek text letter by letter. No knowledge of Greek is required, as written examples of the Greek alphabet are provided; users need only match the appropriate letters with those in the Oxyrhynchus texts. No translation or reading comprehension is necessary. In some cases, the database that powers the project will recognize the transcribed Greek text as part of a known ancient document and be able to identify it or match with other fragments of the same text. More often, however, they are pieces of unknown personal, business or civic documents.
According to project leader Chris Lintott, a physics researcher at the University of Oxford, a portion of an unknown gospel describing Jesus’ activities has already been discovered by the project, as well as part of Herodotus’s The Histories and an intriguing letter about a one-eyed astrologer.