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Instead, he brilliantly conveys both the difficulty of working on the material and the excitement of the historical detective involved in the thrill of the chase: open a box of unpublished papyri and you never know what you will find - high poetry and vulgar farce, sales and loans, wills and contracts, tax returns and government orders, private letters, shopping lists and household accounts. Then there is the pleasure of comprehension: as you decipher the ink, still black after 2, years, you begin to make words out of letters and then sentences out of words; the eye looks for shapes, and the mind looks for sense, and the two in alliance turn a string of symbols into intelligible text.

If it was the literary discoveries that initially excited Grenfell and Hunt, subsequent generations of scholars have come to value even more the everyday material about Greek and Byzantine Egypt.

City Of The Sharp Nosed Fish: Greek Lives In Roman Egypt by Peter Parsons

For the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus contained what Parsons calls "a time capsule of a very special kind. Pompei preserves a snapshot of Roman life, as it was on one catastrophic day, the buildings and bodies of those who lived there. Oxyrhynchus offers the converse: not bodies or buildings, but a paper trail of a whole culture. Much of the excitement of Parsons's book derives from the astonishingly contemporary feel of much of the material. A little boy, Theon, writes to his parents: "If you don't take me with you to Alexandria, I won't eat, I won't drink, so there.

There is gossip about politicians consorting with rent boys, complaints about tax and death duties, even some muttered anxieties about the growing influence of Alexandria's Jewish lobby. And then there are the horribly contemporary religious fanatics, running around Egyptian city centres trying to lynch and assassinate writers and freethinkers, and to destroy idols and temples - though, in the fifth century, these fanatics were not Islamists, but early Coptic saints like St Cyril and his monks, "that black-robed tribe who eat more than elephants, sweeping across the country like a river in spate ravaging the temples".

In this sense, reading the book has the same extraordinary sense of human familiarity that one gets looking at the encaustic portraits from the Fayoum: those wax portraits you see in the British Museum and its Cairo counterpart that are so astonishingly lifelike that they can still make you gasp as you find yourself staring eyeball to eyeball with a soldier who could have fought at Actium, or a society lady who may have known Cleopatra.


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The faces still convey with penetrating immediacy the character of the different sitters: the fop and the courtesan, the anxious mother or the fat nouveau-riche matron, hung with gold, dripping with make-up. The viewer peers at them, trying to catch some hint of the strange sights they saw in late antique Egypt.

But the smooth neoclassical faces stare us down; only these scrappy Oxyrhynchus papyri reveal what they could possibly be worrying about. Yet, just as we are lulled into a sense of familiarity by the lives of these bookish correspondents and jobsworth tax collectors, we find that there are indeed huge gulfs of understanding between us and them. Just as, with the Fayoum portraits, you have to keep reminding yourself that the sitters are not from our world, that they are masks attached to Graeco-Egyptian mummies, covering the desiccated corpses of people who possibly saw the world through the glass of an initiate in the cult of Isis, or who maybe married their brother or sister as late as the third century, Diocletian was still trying to outlaw incest in Egypt , so it is with the papyri, which contain moments that bring us up short: we read, for example, of how common it was to dispose of unwanted female babies at the rubbish dumps on the edge of town, where anyone could pick them up and raise them as their slaves.

Likewise, this was a world where the most popular fertility goddess was Athena-Thoeris, a deity who "united in one the grey-eyed goddess of the Acropolis with the pregnant hippopotamus of Egyptian tradition". Also open to recourse in erotic matters was Hekate, the Greek goddess of witches, of whom one prayer begged her to "deprive [my beloved] of sleep until she jumps up and comes to me, cherishing me and making love to me for the duration of her life". The final word should go to Parsons, who writes in his conclusion of the strangeness of the whole miraculous survival of these Greek lives lived out in Roman and Byzantine Egypt:.

Oxyrhynchus exists today as a waste-paper city, a virtual landscape that we can repopulate with living and speaking people. The theatre has vanished, but we still have the prompt-copies that the actors used. The baths have gone, but we can reconstruct their dynasties of cloakroom attendants.

The market has vanished, but we know its porridge stall and its imported cow pats and harassed officials who collected the tax on brothels. Long dead citizens, of whom we have no portrait and no tombstone, communicate from their documents.

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For some we have enough for an entire soap opera [such as the saga of] Tryphon the weaver and his [many] wives. Being classically educated Englishmen, Grenfell and Hunt were mainly interested in the possibility that Oxyrhynchus might reveal the lost masterpieces of classical Greek literature. They knew, for example, that the Constitution of Athens by Aristotle had been discovered on Egyptian papyrus in This hope inspired them and their successors to sift through the mountains of rubbish at Oxyrhynchus for the next century.

The rest consisted of public and private documents: codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records, sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes, and private letters. Still, Grenfell and Hunt found enough texts of more general interest to keep them going in the hope of finding more. In their first year of digging alone, they found parts of several lost plays of Sophocles , such as the Ichneutae and many other books and fragments, including parts of what appeared to be an unknown Christian gospel.

City Of The Sharp Nosed Fish: Greek Lives In Roman Egypt

These discoveries captured the public imagination, and Grenfell and Hunt sent articles and photos to newspapers in Britain , arguing the importance of their work and seeking donations to keep it going. For ten years, from to , every winter, when the Egyptian climate was mild, Grenfell and Hunt supervised hundreds of Egyptian workers, excavating the rubbish mounds, digging up tightly packed layers of papyrus mixed with earth.

The finds were sifted, partially cleaned and then shipped to Grenfell and Hunt's base at Oxford. During the summer, Grenfell and Hunt cleaned, sorted, translated and compared the year's haul, assembling complete texts from dozens of fragments and extracts. In , they published the first volume of their finds. They worked closely together, each revising what the other wrote, and publishing the result jointly.

In , however, Grenfell died, leaving Hunt to continue the work with other collaborators until his own death in Meanwhile, Italian excavators had returned to the site: their work, from to , brought to light many further papyri, including additional pieces of papyrus rolls of which parts had already been discovered by Grenfell and Hunt.

Although the hope of finding all the lost literary works of antiquity at Oxyrhynchus was not realized, many important Greek texts were found at the site. These include poems of Pindar , fragments of Sappho and Alcaeus , along with larger pieces of Alcman , Ibycus , and Corinna. There were also extensive remains of the Hypsipyle of Euripides , fragments of the comedies of Menander , and a large part of the Ichneutae of Sophocles. Another important find was the historical work known as the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia , whose author is unknown but may be Ephorus or, as many currently think, Cratippus.

A life of Euripides by Satyrus the Peripatetic was also unearthed, while an epitome of seven of the lost books of Livy was the most important literary find in Latin. The classical author who has most benefited from the finds at Oxyrhynchus is the Athenian playwright Menander — BC , whose comedies were very popular in Hellenistic times and whose works are frequently found in papyrus fragments. The works found at Oxyrhynchus have greatly raised Menander's status among classicists and scholars of Greek theatre. Other Oxyrhynchus texts preserve parts of Matthew chapter 1 3rd century: P2 and P , 11—12 and 19 3rd to 4th century: P, ; Mark chapters 10—11 5th to 6th century: P3 ; John chapter 1 , and 20 3rd century: P ; Romans chapter 1 4th century: P ; the First Epistle of John 4th-5th century: P ; the 3 Baruch chapters 12—14; 4th or 5th century: P ; the Gospel of the Hebrews 3rd century AD: P ; The Shepherd of Hermas 3rd or 4th century: P , and a work of Irenaeus , 3rd century: P There are many parts of other canonical books as well as many early Christian hymns, prayers, and letters also found among them.

There is an on-line table of contents briefly listing the type of contents of each papyrus or fragment. Since the s, work on the papyri has continued. For many years it was under the supervision of Professor Peter Parsons of Oxford. Eighty large volumes of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri have been published, [11] [12] and these have become an essential reference work for the study of Egypt between the 4th century BC and the 7th century AD. They are also extremely important for the history of the early Christian Church , since many Christian documents have been found at Oxyrhynchus in far earlier versions than those known elsewhere.

At least another forty volumes are anticipated. Since the days of Grenfell and Hunt, the focus of attention at Oxyrhynchus has shifted. Modern archaeologists are less interested in finding the lost plays of Aeschylus , although some still dig in hope, and more in learning about the social, economic, and political life of the ancient world. This shift in emphasis had made Oxyrhynchus, if anything, even more important, for the very ordinariness of most of its preserved documents makes them most valuable for modern scholars of social history.

Many works on Egyptian and Roman social and economic history and on the history of Christianity rely heavily on documents from Oxyrhynchus. In , the publication of the papyri was formally adopted as a Major Research Project of the British Academy , jointly managed by Oxford University and University College London and headed by Parsons. The project's chief researcher and administrator is Dr Nikolaos Gonis. The Academy provided funding until ; the project then enjoyed a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board , which funded ongoing work until Today some , papyrus fragments are housed at the Sackler Library , Oxford, with their indexes, archives and photographic record; it is the biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world.

About 2, items are mounted in glass — the rest are conserved in boxes. The focus of the project is now mainly on the publication of this vast archive of material: by 4, items had been translated, edited and published. Publication continues at the rate of about one new volume each year. Each volume contains a selection of material, covering a wide range of subjects. The editors include senior professionals but also students studying papyrology at the doctoral or undergraduate level. Thus recent volumes offer early fragments of the Gospels and of the Book of Revelation , early witnesses to the texts of Apollonius Rhodius , Aristophanes , Demosthenes , and Euripides , previously unknown texts of Simonides and Menander and of the epigrammatist Nicarchus.

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Other subjects covered include specimens of Greek music and documents relating to magic and astrology. A joint project with Brigham Young University using multi-spectral imaging technology has been extremely successful in recovering previously illegible writing. With multi-spectral imaging , many pictures of the illegible papyrus are taken using different filters, finely tuned to capture certain wavelengths of light. Thus, researchers can find the optimum spectral portion for distinguishing ink from paper in order to display otherwise completely illegible papyri.

The amount of text potentially to be deciphered by this technique is huge.


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A selection of the images obtained during the project and more information on the latest discoveries has been provided on the project's website. On June 21, the Times Literary Supplement published the text and translation of a newly reconstructed poem by Sappho , [14] together with discussion by Martin L. In the first program agreement was signed to enhance the Mission between the University of Barcelona, the current driver of the mission together with the Department of Culture and Media of the Generalitat of Catalonia, but since it is only financed by the University of Barcelona, the Spanish Ministry and the Catalan Society of Egyptology.

The aim of the mission is to give continuity to the historical archaeological studies of previous expeditions while promoting research at Oxyrhynchus and conserve and enhance structures discovered on the site. In addition to the publication of several articles in professional journals, excavations carried out by the Mission have resulted in a sample, presented at the Egyptian Museum and the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria with paintings of late antiquity and various objects belonging to a necropolis Osireion located 1.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Village in Egypt. This article is about the Egyptian city. For the genus of legumes, see Oxyrhynchus plant.

Match-fixing & curses in the City of the Sharp-nosed Fish

This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. Main article: Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Oxyrhynchus Online Project Metadata. Retrieved 27 March Material: Paper.