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by Archaeology Newsroom

Oxyrhynchus: treasured rubbish

 A prosperous city in decay, its archives ending in the public dustbin, just to reappear as one of Antiquity’s greatest treasures
 
The story of Oxyrhynchus is a remarkable one. Built by the Ptolemies to host one of the three more prosperous communities of Greco-Roman Egypt, was abandoned gradually shortly after the Arab conquest (614), as its main resource – a canal – was now dry. Its last inhabitants left for a brighter future, without realizing that what was left behind was to be proved the most treasured possession of generations to come. Much later, in the 19th century, this treasure started came to light from under the sand, hidden in the dustbins of the old city, next to the dried canal.
It was not gold or anything materially precious. It was just thousands of dried leaves. Dried leaves stuck together to form the sort of paper we know as papyrus and written with everything that an ancient mind could produce. It was there, on small, badly shredded sheets of papyrus…thousand words of order, wisdom, faith and desire, religious and secular, poetic and mundane. Hitherto unknown poems of Sappho and Homeric verses were lying together with shopping lists and archival documents, apocryphal Evangelical writings, product catalogues and private letters! Now we know that the Oxyrynchus papyri consist 79% of the whole papyrological archival material, recording our ancestors’ own view towards everyday life.
 
Since 1966 the British Academy was working extensively on an Oxyrhynchus papyri research project, headed by Greek papyrologist N. Ghonis.  Up to 2003 the project had reached to the point when  100.000 papyrus fragments owned by the Sackler Library, Oxford had been catalogued and archived, while 4.700 have also been translated and published. Since then, modern technology   – including CT scanning  – has also been used to allow us locating palimpsests on papyrus sheets and having a look on elements scrapped out  al little bit less than 2000 years ago! Up to now, 6.000 texts from Oxyrynchus, survbing in institutes worldwide, have been translated. Workinprogresscanbeseeninwww. papyrology.ox.ac. uk/ΡΟxy/.