View Full Version : Oxyrhynchus Papyri breakthrough

04-17-2005, 11:44 PM
This article was posted to the B-Greek email list recently. I figured that some of you would be interested. Read whole article here (http://news.independent.co.uk/world/science_technology/story.jsp?story=630165).
Decoded at last: the 'classical holy grail' that may rewrite the history of the world Scientists begin to unlock the secrets of papyrus scraps bearing long-lost words by the literary giants of Greece and Rome

By David Keys and Nicholas Pyke

17 April 2005

For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in equal measure - a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it could redraw the map of classical civilisation.
If only it was legible.

Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.

In the past four days alone, Oxford's classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament.


When it has all been read - mainly in Greek, but sometimes in Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic, Nubian and early Persian - the new material will probably add up to around five million words. Texts deciphered over the past few days will be published next month by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, which financed the discovery and owns the collection.

Joe Fleener
04-25-2005, 06:57 AM
Here is the text of a message Robert Craft sent to his PhD students near the end of last week.

Here is the inside scoop on the recent sensationalistic headlines about new papyri discoveries at Oxford. Still exciting, but more believable! Bob Forwarded message: Dirk Obbink is for the moment unable to write to the list and has asked me to post his eagerly awaited explanation of what really happened. Please, answer to Dirk Obbink and not to me. Questions or comments of general interest are most welcome 'on-list'. Adam (with apologies for late posting) Like other collections we do not normally announce our findings in advance of publication. In this case a team from ISPART (formerly CPART) at Brigham Young University in Utah spent last week creating MSI images (that is, at all ranges of the light band) of papyri in Oxford as part of a project begun in 2002. We scanned portions of the unrolled Herculaneum papyrus in the Bodleian Library and experimented on problematic carbonised and non-carbonised samples in the Oxyrhynchus collection in the Sackler Library (including documents), some of them for final checks in texts scheduled for publication in the next two volumes of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The results, which are still under analysis, and on some of which I am reporting this week at the Center for the Study of the Tebtunis Papyri in Berkeley and on 16 May in Oxford, were of mixed success, revealing many new readings and confirmation of uncertain readings in some problem areas, none at all in others, depending on settings and surface type. In some ranges and surfaces even less writing could be read than with the eye or none at all. As usual with the Oxy. papyri a number of new identifications emerged of literary and documentary texts not previously made by the usual means, together with the isolation of four or five different types of surface and obscurity that respond well or not well to the BYU process. This process, perfected on the Herculaneum papyri since 1999 (similar to that described by Steven Booras in Cronache Ercolanesi and Nigel Wilson in his shortly to appear articles on the Vatican Menander palimpsest in the Journal of the Walters Art Museum and the proceedings of Rinacimento Virtuale), captures rapidly a series of high-definition digital images at different ranges of the light spectrum by means of an automated, rotating wheel containing c.15 filtres and passing these in successing before the camera's lens. The process seemed to work best on darkened, charred, or stained surfaces, and can image through some surface materials, but sees nothing through mud, clay, or silt. It produced excellent results on palimpsests, cancellations and damnationes memoriae, and on disintegrating surfaces where the ink has settled deep into the fibres. It was least successful on surfaces that were partially or entirely washed out. On abraded and uneven surfaces the camera's long depth of field elides differences in levels and aids reading by eliminating all shadows and levelling so that all writing appears well-defined as though on a single layer. Darkened surfaces tended to respond best deep in the infra-red end of the wave-band (c.800-1000 nanometers), but not exclusively so: each papyrus and surface (and sometimes parts of each) responds best (i.e. with maximum reflectivity, contrast, and definition, so that background noise is eliminated) at a completely different point (which must be located) in the spectrum, including some in the ultra-violet range. Surprisingly, in one trial the process successfully imaged through painted gesso, revealing a previously unknown document report to a strategos) on the papyrus cartonage surface underneath. The London press got wind of this (the unrolled Herculaneum papyrus of Epicurus' Peri physeos in the British Library is being done this week) and reported enthusiastically, if selectively. No mention, for example, was made of the success on the Bodleian Herculaneum papyrus (P.Herc. 118), now thereby revealed to be a Peri Epikourou or at any rate a pre-Philodemean history of the school. The article certainly should not have said (if it did) that all the papyri had been discovered yesterday, only that we made significant (and sufficiently exciting) advances in reading and confirmation of identifications with some, the same with some other pieces, while still others were identified for the first time, some standard classical authors, as usual, while others remain complete mysteries. Readings from some identified from earlier multi-spectral trials since 2002 were refined. The Oxyrhynchus texts will be published in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, beginning with the next volume (LXIX), still scheduled for publication next month. An article on the technical aspects is planned for Scientific American. I am happy to answer questions off-list. Dirk Obbink -- Robert A. Kraft, Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania 227 Logan Hall (Philadelphia PA 19104-6304); tel. 215 898-5827 kraft@ccat.sas.upenn.edu http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/rs/rak/kraft.html (http://ms07.mrf.mail.rcn.net/cgi-bin/fetch.cgi?url=http%3A%2F%2Fccat.sas.upenn.edu%2Frs %2Frak%2Fkraft.html)