26 july 2011

Public to hunt for lost gospels, literature & letters

Arts | Science

Papyri of a lost gospel from the Oxyrhynchus collection
Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5072 (3rd century AD), Uncanonical Gospel. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford. All rights reserved.

Members of the public are being asked to help decode papyri, in order to find fragments of lost gospels, works of literature, and letters about everyday life in ancient Egypt, in a new project launched by Oxford University.

Ancient Lives (ancientlives.org), which launches today, is putting hundreds of thousands of images of fragments of papyri written in Greek online. Researchers say that ‘armchair archaeologists’ visiting the website can help with cataloguing the collection, and could make amazing finds, such as the recent discovery of fragments of a previously unknown ‘lost’ gospel which describes Jesus Christ casting out demons.

Nobody knows who wrote this lost gospel: it is part of a treasure trove of papyri recovered in the early 20th century from the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, the ‘City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish’. The texts were written in Greek during a period when Egypt was under the control of a Greek (and later Roman) settler class. Many of the papyri had not been read for over a thousand years.

Because of the huge number of images involved researchers need volunteers to look through and catalogue them or transcribe the text using a simple web interface, which displays both known and unknown texts.

‘It’s with the digital advancements of our own age, that we're able to open up this window into the past, and see a common human experience in that intimate, traditional medium, handwriting,’ said lead developer and designer, William MacFarlane of Oxford University’s Department of Physics.

Experts have been studying the collection for over a hundred years. It is because of Oxyrhynchus that we now have lost masterpieces that went missing during the medieval period: the lost poetry of Sappho, the lost comedies of Menander and the lost plays of Sophocles. There are personal documents too – we learn from a letter that Aurelius the sausage-maker has taken out a loan of 9000 silver denarii, perhaps to expand his business, whilst in another letter of 127 AD a grandmother, called Sarapias, asks that her daughter is brought home so that she can be present at the birth of her grandchild.

‘Discovering new texts is always exciting,’ explains team papyrologist Dr James Brusuelas, ‘but the fact that you’re reading a piece of literature or a private letter that hasn’t been read in over a thousand years, that’s what I like about papyrology.’ Paul Ellis, an imaging specialist who assisted with the digitization of the papyrus texts, said: ‘Online images are a window into ancient lives.’

The project is a collaboration between Oxford University papyrologists, the Egypt Exploration Society, and a team in Oxford University’s Department of Physics who specialise in building ‘citizen science’ projects that allow anyone to make an authentic contribution to research.

‘Until now only experts could explore this incredible collection,’ said project leader Dr Chris Lintott of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, ‘but with so much of the collection unstudied there’s plenty for everyone. We’re excited to see what visitors to ancientlives.org can unearth.’

‘Papyrologists are well known for friendship among those interested in ancient texts,’ said Project Director Dr Dirk Obbink, Oxford University Lecturer in Papyrology and Greek Literature at the University of Oxford. ‘This effort is pervaded by a spirit of collaboration. We aim to transcribe as much as possible of the original papyri, and then identify and reconstruct the text. No single pair of eyes can see and read everything. From scientists and professors to school students and ancient enthusiasts, everyone has something to contribute – and gain.’

Ancientlives.org is part of the www.zooniverse.org network of public participation projects, which includes Old Weather, which aims to rescue weather records contained in World War I ship’s logs.  More than 500,000 logbook pages have been transcribed so far. The original Zooniverse project was Galaxy Zoo, and a total of more than 400,000 people have registered to take part.

The project was supported by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the John Fell Fund, and is indebted to the Oxford University Department of Classics and the Egypt Exploration Society, London who oversee the Oxyrhynchus Collection in the Sackler Library, Oxford as part of a wide range of scholarly and outreach activities.