Opportunity to contribute to research of the Oxyrhynchus papyri

Finding something on the internet that is fun, absorbing AND good for research is always something to be welcomed and widely shared!

Ancient Lives
Screenshot of Ancient Lives on https://www.zooniverse.org/

Here is a chance to work with ancient papyrus documents from Graeco-Roman Egypt that have never before been properly examined on a project called Ancient Lives. You could find yourself working on a third century letter, or a sixth century set of accounts, or even a second century biblical text…!

The fragments belong to the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Collection which belongs to the Egyptian Exploration Society. It is the largest collection of papyri in the world and is housed at the Sackler Library  in Oxford.

Grenfell and Hunt 1899
Grenfell and Hunt (1899-1900 Expedition)
image: Egypt Exploration Society

The Egyptian urban centre of Oxyrhnchus (roughly 160 km south west of Cairo) was excavated by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt between 1886 and 1907. One of the most apparently unpromising places of their excavations turned out to be the most valuable: the town’s rubbish dumps. Because of the lack of rain and arid conditions, they discovered thousands upon thousands of papyrus documents dating from the third century BCE to the seventh century CE. Their contents, mainly written in Greek, provide us with valuable information of day to day life at this time. As well as numerous letters and accounts of daily transactions, the collection also include early Christian writings, biblical texts and classical works.

Numbering over 500,00 pieces, means that there are still many fragments that have yet to be properly examined. One of the major tasks is their transcription. Transcription is the process where the writing on the papyrus is retyped using a formalised alphabet making the text a lot clearer to read.

The innovative Citizen Science platform Zooniverse, together with the University of Oxford, have provided a way for every one to be involved in transcribing ancient papyri without having to have any specialist knowledge – and you do NOT have to be able to read Ancient Greek (although familiarity with the alphabet would be a help). Together they have set up a transcription workspace on their Ancient Lives project. 

Zooniverse workspace
Screenshot of transcription workspace

Images of the fragments can be viewed on a screen with facilities to rotate and zoom. There is also the capability to record and measure each fragment. There is a short tutorial explaining the functions of the workspace tools after which you will be presented with an image of a papyrus fragment and you can get straight to work!

zooniverse transcription
Screenshot of transcription tool

The transcription process is easy. Clicking on a letter on the fragment places a coloured spot over it, you can then decide which letter or symbol it matches most closely to on your keyboard that is positioned just below the screen. In this case kappa, upsilon and theta have already been transcribed. The next letter is highlighted with a blue dot and the cursor (not seen in the screenshot) is over the letter ‘rho’ and highlighting it.  The ‘map’ in the inset screen on the right indicates where you are in relation to the complete fragment. Alongside transcription, each fragment requires measuring. This is done by clicking on the ‘MEASURE’ tab.

Zooniverse measurement
Screenshot of the measurement tool

Another valuable feature is the Talk facility that allows you to write comments, questions and join in discussions about the particular image on which you are working. Once you have finished transcribing and measuring the fragment, you can review your work by using the ‘Light Box’.

Zooniverse light box
Screenshot of the Light Box

This displays all the fragments on which you have worked. Information about each fragment (how many times it has been transcribed, measured and any discussion about it) is revealed by clicking on the image.

Lightbox tagging
Screenshot of annotated fragment

This is a wonderful opportunity for those who would like to get involved in working with ancient manuscripts. Although this work can be done without any knowledge of ancient Greek, a familiarity with its alphabet (remember only majuscule – approximating to the Western upper case) was used at this time. It is absolutely ideal for those who attended the Summer Greek course in August and want a fun way to avoid getting rusty! Additionally there is a very helpful blog administered by the ‘Ancient Lives’ team and regular twitter updates – @ancientlives.

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