Sunday, April 17, 2005

A break from our regularly scheduled programming

The Independent has a story to quicken the hearts of classicists and remote sensing enthusiasts alike… all I can say is WOW!

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.

The original papyrus documents, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump in central Egypt, are often meaningless to the naked eye - decayed, worm-eaten and blackened by the passage of time. But scientists using the new photographic technique, developed from satellite imaging, are bringing the original writing back into view. Academics have hailed it as a development which could lead to a 20 per cent increase in the number of great Greek and Roman works in existence.

[…] Running to 400,000 fragments, stored in 800 boxes at Oxford's Sackler Library, it is the biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world. The previously unknown texts, read for the first time last week, include parts of a long-lost tragedy — the Epigonoi ("Progeny") by the 5th-century BC Greek playwright Sophocles; part of a lost novel by the 2nd-century Greek writer Lucian; unknown material by Euripides; mythological poetry by the 1st-century BC Greek poet Parthenios; work by the 7th-century BC poet Hesiod; and an epic poem by Archilochos, a 7th-century successor of Homer, describing events leading up to the Trojan War. Additional material from Hesiod, Euripides and Sophocles almost certainly await discovery.

[…] 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.

[Story via Slashdot — images via POxy]

More information about the site, its excavation and the papyri can be found at POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online.


EclectEcon said...

This is by far one of the best treatments of this exciting news. I had no idea how many different people would be blogging about it when I posted my brief piece this morning. Thanks for posting such a thorough article!

MapMaster said...

Thank you, Eclectic. This story played to two strong interests of mine — and apparently interested quite a few others as well, which I was pleased to see. I can't wait to see some of the pieces come out in translation.