Finds in Ancient Egyptian rubbish dumps inspire "world's largest archaeological project"

By Ben Miller | 18 February 2016

Touted as the world’s largest archaeological project, an online search for clues is crowd-sourcing the details of ancient lives in Egypt - from 19th century rubbish dumps

A black and white photo of archaeological excavations taking place at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt
Excavations at Oxyrhynchus, in late 19th century Egypt© The Egypt Exploration Society
Going through bins has perhaps never proved as productive as it did for Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Sturridge Hunt more than a century ago. Rooting through a rubbish dump near Oxyrhynchus (the name means “sharp-nosed”), in ancient Egypt, these light-suited, hirsute late-20s archaeologists litter-picked more than 500,000 papyrus fragments, initiating papyrology as a scientific form.

Deciphering these fragile little scraps can be enlightening. “For drunken headache: wear leaves of Alexandrian chamaedaphne strung together,” reads one papyrus cure for ulcers, haemorrhoids or poor eyes.

A black and white photo of archaeological excavations taking place at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt
© The Egypt Exploration Society
Juda, who is named as falling off his horse, apparently needed two nurses to turn him over, suffering injuries which sound worse than those afflicted by Sabina, who consigned a woman named Syra to four days in bed after hitting her with a key. Apollonius and Sarapias, more pleasantly, dispatched a thousand roses and 4,000 narcissi to the wedding of a friend’s son.

Brown and torn, the notes are as heavily open to interpretation as Morse Code muffled through a tin can. The Ashmolean Museum holds this avalanche of plays, letters, receipts, wills and government letters from the lives of people living between the 1st and 6th centuries, and a website where readers can match Greek letters to fragments has already attracted registrations from more than 250,000 volunteers who believe they have the definitive answers to these uncertain snapshots of ancient Egypt. Only 1.5 percent of the million-item collection has so far been transcribed and identified.

A black and white photo of archaeological excavations taking place at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt
© The Egypt Exploration Society
“The traditional classical world leaves us no actual books,” wrote PJ Parsons, of Oxford’s Christ Church, under the heading A Waste Paper City in an exhibition on the papyri held at the Ashmolean in 1998.

“The great Library of Alexandria, the 28 public libraries of imperial Rome have disappeared without trace. We are left with copies of copies, chance survivals through the Empire and Middle Ages.

A photo of a scrap of paper from archaeological excavations at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt
This fragment is believed to come from a romantic novel© Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford / Egypt Exploration Society
“We have ideas of what’s missing, but these losses seemed final. Sporadically and in fragments, the dumps of Oxyrhynchus are changing all that.

“Oxyrhynchus restores to us authors famous in classical times, who went under in the Middle Ages: the songs of Sappho, the sitcom of Menander, the elegant and learned elegies of Callimachus that Roman poets liked to boast of imitating.

A photo of a scrap of paper from archaeological excavations at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt
The book involves a king called Sesonchosis© Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford / Egypt Exploration Society
“These Egyptian Greeks read Greek tragedies that to us had just been names — and the satyr plays that went with them.

“Oxyrhynchus yielded a huge random mass of everyday papers — private letters and shopping lists, tax returns and government circulars. We know far more about Oxyrhynchus as a functioning town, and about its people as living individuals, than we do about many more glamorous ruins.

A photo of a scrap of paper from archaeological excavations at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt
This lost gospel features an early story of Jesus casting out demons from possessed men© Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford / Egypt Exploration Society
“We know where Thonis the fisherman lived, and Aphynchis the embroiderer, and Anicetus the dyer, and Philammon the greengrocer. We know how much farmers had to pay when they brought in dates and olives and pumpkins to market.

“We know that on November 2 AD 182, the slave Epaphroditus, eight years old, leaned out of a bedroom window to watch the castanet-players in the street below, and slipped and fell and was killed. The reason we know so much, and in such detail, is rubbish.”

A photo of a scrap of paper from archaeological excavations at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt
An account of a teenage wrestler who was managed by his father Aurelius Aquila, who had agreed to accept a bribe for his son to lose the fight. This example of cheating dates back to 12 BC© Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford / Egypt Exploration Society
Egyptians had started selling finds from the dumps to western museums by the late 19th century. Grefnell and Hunt had met through scholarships in Oxford, and the graduate scheme which would dictate the path of the rest of their lives sent them to Egypt in 1895, assisted by 30 foremen and 100 workmen who attacked great mounds of 30-foot earthy heaps.

Parsons portrays theirs as a lonely life, boxing and shipping finds in baskets and old biscuit tins. Hunt shopped for medicines, fish-hooks, curiosities and a well-stocked revolver; Grenfell’s brother wished him luck with “the gravedigging”, only for Grenfell to end his career following his third nervous breakdown, in 1920.

A photo of a scrap of paper from archaeological excavations at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt
© Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford / Egypt Exploration Society
Hunt continued until 1934, but their partnership had been one of extraordinary achievements, jointly publishing 16 “substantial” volumes balanced by the contrasting personalities of the writers (Grenfell was an impetuous extrovert, critiqued by the shy and cautious Hunt.)

John Darlington, whose own story-driven interest is in the loose fragments of stained glass recovered from the destroyed St Michael’s cathedral in Coventry, will introduce Dr Dirk Obbink, the leader of the translation project, in a special event at the Royal Geographical Society next month.

“We simply couldn’t resist asking Dirk to come and tell his story,” says Darlington, who is part of the World Monuments Fund.

“It directly links people who might be sitting in their living rooms in London, Lima or Lusaka with a small fragment of the past – and then gets them to help.”

  • Talk takes place at the Royal Geographical Society, London on March 1 2016. Tickets £20, book online. Follow the World Monuments Fund on Twitter @worldmonuments.

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Modern technology is certainly helping to reconstruct artifacts and written documents to such a degree that we may have to re-write History. These fragments of Papyri are a fantastic discovery.
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