Friday, July 21, 2006

Oxyrhynchus on TV

I just saw a fascinating show on BBC 2: "Lost in Egypt: Decoding the Papyri" (Thu 20 Jul, 11:20 pm - 12:20 am [originally a BBC4 production]). Blurb:
Documentary about an archaeological discovery in Egypt a hundred years ago that revolutionised our attitudes to the Ancients. It comprised over half a million documents which included not only the lost works of the giants of Greek literature such as Homer, Sophocles and Sappho, but also records of daily life that offered a unique window onto a lost world. New technology developed by NASA promises to reveal some of the most significant finds to date.

Worth watching if you get a chance (or can borrow a video). Makes papyrology look interesting (and complex). Lots of talking Profs from Oxford, UCL etc. (esp. Dirk Obbink). Reconstructions of Grenfell & Hunt etc. Great pictures of Obbink opening up one of the 800 boxes of unedited papyri and looking inside. Repeated claim was that perhaps 500,000 fragments were unearthed and brought to Oxford; so only around 1% have been published so far. Focused on Greek literary texts (Menander, Sappho, Sophocles etc.), nothing on Bible (one small bit on Gospel of Thomas which ended up talking about the Coptic text - which is not from Oxyrhynchus!). Ended up with section on multi-spectral imaging which was interesting.

6 Comments:

P J Williams said...

"Repeated claim was that perhaps 500,000 fragments were unearthed and brought to Oxford; so only around 1% have been published so far."

If true, our NT papyri might eventually number several thousand.

Making the very unlikely assumption of a uniform rate of publication (though scholars publication may slow down or speed up as technology improves) publication will be complete around 3,900 (though I hope for the Parousia before then).

Alternatively, perhaps the holders of the papyri should release images without waiting for analysis and then let everyone work on them.

Peter M. Head said...

You assume that NT papyri might be evenly distributed throughout the 800 boxes. That would be nice - a continual flow of new evidence for the NT for the foreseeable future. But the 800 boxes were packaged up by Grenfell and Hunt - papyri interleaved with issues of the Oxford Gazette. So it may have been that G&H took a quick look at each one and picked out the best examples and ones with obvious interest to publish (this would include early Christian texts with nomina sacra). But I suppose the basic answer is we don't know. And is sounds like they don't either.

There was talk about sending out images to other scholars more, and that MSI might speed things up somewhat.

D Jongkind said...

About the number of 500.000, I thought I heard Dirk Obbink once say that this is the number of publishable items/documents, which is not the same as 'fragments'. One document can of course consist of any number of fragments.

Roger Pearse said...

The program was very interesting, and it was a shame that it was on so late at night (although I'm glad to see the insomnia brought on by the oppressive heat here is causing us all to see some interesting TV!)

It was interesting to see how a dry subject was brought to life, in a way likely to appeal broadly.

The concentration on classical material was also good, in that if the bible had been emphasised it would have been a 'religious' program. Our religious TV is mostly anti-Christian, and I think that such a line could only have poisoned an interesting programme.

The most interesting bit was the idea of scanning mummy masks, made out of whole rolls of papyrus, non-invasively. Has anyone heard of this?

There was no mention of the initiative to rephotograph papyri under multi-spectral imaging; pity. Nor of the dig in the 1960's at Oxyrhynchus.

But I wish we could have more such programmes. It was great!

One obvious question, not addressed by the programme: what about rubbish dumps in other ancient cities? If they are these highly visible mounds on the edge of the desert, there must be further opportunities every few miles down the Nile. Why don't people go and look?

Peter M. Head said...

Dirk,

You are absolutely right. I first wrote 'texts', but that was no good so I wrote 'fragments'. But you are right, that is no good either. 'documents' is OK.

Peter M. Head said...

Dirk,

You are absolutely right. I first wrote 'texts', but that was no good so I wrote 'fragments'. But you are right, that is no good either. 'documents' is OK.