Friday, July 29, 2011

Help Identify Oxyrhynchus Papyri!

The University of Oxford has launched Ancient Lives (, a website featuring hundreds of thousands of images of fragments of papyri written in Greek. Members of the public are being asked to help decode papyri.

From the announcement:
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.

So now anyone can dig for new NT papyri!

Read the announcement here.


  1. Cool! Now I can pour myself into another professor's project for the meager wages of a struggling grad student. :) I can volunteer my time without even having to meet the profs!

    In all seriousness, though, it is exciting to see the technological possibilities for textual criticism in the 21st century. I've been transcribing and measuring a few manuscripts, and the user interface is extremely simple. It will be interesting to see how they sort all of the data they get in and how much help it really is in the end.

    I just hope that one day I can actually make a living off of this field... :)

  2. I went in and did a couple of these. Unfortunately, they don't let you zoom in closely. Some of the images are pretty dark, and very hard to read. Also, there is no mechanism for putting in possibilities. You either mark what a letter is, or you leave it alone. You cannot put in that a letter is either a lambda or delta for instance. But still, this tool would be an excellent idea for student assignments for those profs teaching NTTC.

  3. Two thoughts:
    1. Is anything easy to identify picked out of the items to be scanned so the general public only gets the hard stuff?
    2. Has anybody noticed but the overwhelming majority of recently published Oxy biblical MSS are from the NT? I pointed out a few years ago the imbalance towards NT papyri at Oxy compared to other sites in Egypt where the ratio of NT to OT is different. Does this reflect a real difference between Oxy and elsewhere or is it just that those publishing the Oxy papyri are (for some reason) not publishing OT papyri?

    Matthew Hamilton
    Sydney, Australia

  4. Matthew,

    Only one of the ones I did had easy to read letters, but it was a very small fragment. I don't know how it possibly could ever be identified as belonging to a known piece of literature.

  5. ok, now I am doing one that is somewhat easier to read and actually quite a large fragment. I was initially taken back by the fact that there was clearly two column of printed text, and what appeared to be a nomina sacra line over KC (kurios), but as I look at the rest of the words, I cannot yet identify anything that looks like a NT text.

  6. I just did a few more of these. One image was a completely blank strip of papyrus. No writing on it at all.

  7. Some few are interesting papyri! However many of them are already documented, such as P71 which they present 1 side of. Its a shame that folks cannot download images to work on in a better setting! It is also degrading to simply transcribe for them without easily identifying the texts via using various databases and then submitting probable identifications. Often just one side of a document is available, as if we transcribers need not know any more! They seem to leave the dirty work to those who will work for them! Still it can be interesting for those with free time!
    Gary S. Dykes

  8. They do have a Match button that you can click and it will analyze the letters you identified against a database of known documents. In the ones I have done, only one returned any sort of match.

  9. Something else I found here in one of the user comments, is the fact that: "There are are 139,683 papyrus fragments in Ancient Lives, of these only 8,796 of these are published."

    It sounds like the higher quality color photos are already published. They put them in there as a control, so they can test how users use the interface.

  10. What's the mentioned "recent discovery of fragments of a previously unknown ‘lost’ gospel which describes Jesus Christ casting out demons"?