News From Oxyrhynchus


Virginia Postrel points to a remarkable story in The Independent: Using infra-red technology, classicists are finally able to read an enormous hoard of ancient papyri that until now has been illegible. In the 19th century, some five million words of text from antiquity were discovered in an ancient trash heap near the central Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus. The material has been sitting for a century in 800 boxes in an Oxford museum, awaiting a development that would bring it to life. Thanks to researchers at Brigham Young University who adapted satellite-imaging technology, astonished classicists now have a whole new library to read.

Writes The Independent, "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. Some are even predicting a 'second Renaissance.'"

Coming to light is previously unknown material by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod, and others. The new material "could easily double the surviving body of lesser work—the pulp fiction and sitcoms of the day."

Of course, along with literary treasures, such discoveries often contain less welcome surprises as well. The Greek comic playwright Menander, for example, was once held in high repute on the basis on the praise he'd received in antiquity. In 1957, however, a complete work of his turned up (Dyskolos), and his modern reputation tumbled; he's now regarded as a second-rate hack. Classical aesthetic sensibilities were once regarded as remarkably refined based on (among other factors) the period's pure white temples and statuary; it has since become undeniable that these buildings and statues were all originally covered in gaudy colors. The discovery of the Gilgamesh epic in Mesopotamia was originally hailed as confirmation of the Great Flood; it has since become evidence instead of Biblical literary debt. The meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi gospels for Christian origins remains a matter of intense debate. (A team of prominent liberal Christian theologians has recently decided that at least one of these gospels, The Gospel of Thomas, probably contains genuine sayings of Jesus.)

Five million new words from antiquity are likely to say quite a bit not only about their authors, but also about their readers, especially if there is substantial new popular material. Portions of a previously unknown 2nd century novel by Lucian have already been identified (he is the author of the Munchausen-like True Story, which became a bestseller of sorts when rediscovered by Renaissance book hunters). The more of the past that comes to light, the more that past is likely to change.