At the turn of the last century, almost half a million fragments of papyri were uncovered at Oxyrhynchus. Though unknown to the general public, this is one of Egypt’s most important sites since among the texts were iconic records: fragments of the Gospel of Thomas and texts that illuminate the Classical histories. Dominic Rathbone writes.

When Tiberius became emperor of Rome in AD 14 his charismatic nephew and adopted son Germanicus was his destined successor. After campaigns in Germany, for which he was awarded a triumph in AD 17, Germanicus was sent out to the eastern provinces to make a show of Roman might against Parthia. He passed through Egypt en route, making time for tourism, but in Syria fell ill and died on 10 October 19. His ashes were brought back to Rome to scenes of public hysteria and rumour that he had been poisoned by Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria.

The basic story known from the sharp and slanted version in Tacitus’ Annals has been expanded and illuminated by finds of documents: in 1989 a bronze tablet found in Spain revealed the long decree of the senate of 10 December 19 which acquits Piso of poisoning but condemns him of treason, and records new details of the public reaction and also urges Tiberius to cheer up; inscriptions found earlier record posthumous honours voted for Germanicus. A papyrus published in 1911 preserves two edicts of Germanicus in Egypt: one banning unauthorised requisitions in his name, the other refusing salutation as a god. In 1959 another papyrus fragment, found at Oxyrhynchus, was published with on one side a record of an Alexandrian embassy to Augustus and on the other a speech by Germanicus (the ‘imperator’) in response to the presentation of decrees in his honour at Alexandria. The fragment (P.Oxy. XXV 2435) reads as follows :

The imperator: “I who was sent by my father, men of Alexandria -”
The crowd called out: “Hurrah! Lord! Good luck! Good things will
come to you.”
The imperator: “You, men of Alexandria, who have pressed me to
address you, restrain your cheering until I have finished dealing with each
of your requests. I who was sent by my father, as I said, to make arrangements
in the provinces across the sea, a very difficult assignment, in the
first place because of the sea voyage, and because it has torn me away
from my father (sc. Tiberius) and grandmother (sc. Livia) and mother
(sc. Antonia) and brothers and sisters and children and close friends
(unclear passage) a new sea in order in the first place to see your city -”
The crowd called out: “Good luck!”
The imperator: “I already imagined it to be a very splendid sight, in the
first place because of your hero and founder (sc. Alexander the Great), to
whom a kind of debt joins those who support the same (sc. anti-Persian)
values, and then because of the benefactions made by my grandfather
Augustus and my father (unclear passage). And I do not speak -”
The crowd called out: “Oh! May your life be longer!”
The imperator: “- of what everyone knows, but I am mindful that I
have found these (honours) to be multiplied by being treasured in your
hearts. For honorary decrees can be drawn up in meetings of a few men,
but . . .” (text breaks off).

Germanicus sounds like a man taken by surprise, desperately spinning out his words as he wonders how to decline diplomatically the honours offered, which we know included worship, and not grant the reciprocal favours which the Alexandrians expected from this grandson, through his mother, of Mark Antony. But how did his words reach us from the debris of Oxyrhynchus?

Finding papyri

By ‘papyrus’ we mean the paper-like sheets made from the cross-laid fibrous self-adhesive strips from the stalk of the papyrus plant, indigenous to Egypt, which could be pasted in series to form rolls (books, registers). Papyrus was used for writing in Egypt in various forms of the Egyptian language from around 2,500 BC to the 10th century AD. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt from the Persians in 322 BC over a quarter of a million Greeks settled in Egypt. For a thousand years to the Arab conquest in AD 641, Greek was the principal language of administration of the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine governments and of literature and private documents, and public and private writing on papyrus boomed. The solution to the resulting paper mountain was to throw it away in the refuse dumps located around settlements or sometimes in disused buildings or rooms; occasionally it was recycled as cartonnage (a kind of papier-mâché) to form the painted casing for human and animal mummies. In rainless Middle Egypt, where abandoned ancient settlements also lay above the water-table and the annual Nile flood (unlike the Delta), organic materials including papyri have survived, particularly in the ancient village sites around the edge of the Fayyum, a semi-oasis to the south-west of modern Cairo, and the city of Oxyrhynchus, some 180km south of Cairo.

Digging Oxyrhynchus

Although some Greek texts on papyrus had reached Europe earlier, it was in the late 1880s that systematic attempts to purchase and excavate papyri began. This happened through the coincidence of agricultural expansion in Egypt that destroyed ancient sites and the professionalisation of scholarly study in the west. Chance discoveries by the great Egyptologist Petrie spurred two young Oxford dons, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, to dig specifically to find papyri. In winter 1895/1896 they investigated Graeco-Roman village sites in the Fayyum and in 1896/1897 they dug at Oxyrhynchus. Their success in finding papyri led to the formation of the Graeco-Roman branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund on 1 July 1897 to provide them with more regular funding by subscriptions and to publish the texts. They returned to the Fayyum for another four seasons from 1898/1899 to 1902 with indifferent results. Their greatest finds, from Tebtunis, went to the University of California at Berkeley because in 1901 they were financed by Mrs Phoebe Hearst. In the winters of 1902 and 1903 they also dug briefly at el-Hibeh and nearby sites. They worked at Oxyrhynchus for a further five seasons from 1903 to 1906/1907 with spectacular success. Unfortunately, a combination of Grenfell’s ill health and shortage of funds postponed indefinitely their planned return.

The ancient city of Oxyrhynchus lay on the west bank of the Bahr Yusuf (Joseph’s Channel), an improved secondary channel of the Nile that flows north along the western edge of the middle Nile valley. From Pharaonic times the town had been capital of the 18th nome (region) of Upper Egypt, and its Greek name came from the ‘sharp-nosed’ (Greek: oxurhunchos) fish which was the patron deity of the nome. In the Roman and Byzantine periods the city of Oxyrhynchus had occupied an area at least 2km long and 1km wide, and had been adorned with fine stone public buildings and colonnaded streets. Long before Grenfell and Hunt arrived, settlement had atrophied to the canal-side village of Behnesa (nowadays greatly expanded) and virtually the whole site had been thoroughly dug out to recover building materials for re-use. They found a desolate plain scattered with mounds of the rejected detritus, some surmounted by the tombs of local sheikhs.

They noticed traces of a substantial stone building but it was Petrie who, by keyhole excavations in 1922, discovered it to have been a massive stone theatre of the 2nd century AD, the biggest in Roman North Africa.

Grenfell and Hunt were upset to find that the cemeteries were damp but surprised and delighted that almost all the mounds contained papyri. Their favoured method of work was to cut trenches into the sides of the mounds following the ‘veins’ of papyri. These trenches could go 8m deep before reaching the damp layers where papyrus was ill preserved. Each year they employed over a hundred local workmen, who dug with their hoes, the all-purpose tool of the Egyptian fellah, and the winter seasons of excavation had to end when the men began to drift back to agricultural tasks. At the trench face, pairs of workers, usually a man and a boy, carefully dug out the detritus and sorted it for papyrus fragments. Wicker baskets were used to remove the spoil and to keep the day’s papyri. Grenfell mostly supervised the digging while Hunt stayed in their base where he received and sorted the papyri and other finds preparatory to the evening’s work of classification and preliminary decipherment. Hunt also took almost all the photographs, of which the EES still has over 250.

Reading the past

Grenfell and Hunt dug, like their contemporaries, to recover ancient texts on papyrus. They had little interest in the archaeology of the sites where they worked. Their fame rests on their achievements as papyrologists. They endowed the EES, after the annual distribution of finds made by the Egyptian Antiquities Service, with the world’s richest collection of papyri of around half a million fragments.

Most of the papyri are from Oxyrhynchus and were written in Greek; there are a few hundred each in Egyptian (hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic, mostly Coptic), Latin and Arabic, and a very few in Hebrew and Aramaic, Syriac and Pahlavi. Grenfell and Hunt knew what texts they and their financial backers wanted to find: first, early Christian writings, and second, lost masterpieces of ancient Greek literature. They chose to dig at Oxyrhynchus because of its reputation as a fervent Christian centre in late antiquity. Oxyrhynchus gave them what they wanted. Among the finds of the first season was a fragment of a collection of ‘sayings of Jesus’, now known to be part of the Gospel of Thomas, written in Greek around AD 200, which Grenfell and Hunt rushed into press as a pamphlet with a prospectus soliciting subscriptions. More fragments of gospels and other Christian writings followed. The 1906 and 1907 seasons were particularly productive of literary papyri, and the Oxyrhynchus series has produced a mini-renaissance of rediscovered ancient Greek literature, much sadly incomplete, including tragedies and satyr-plays, choral and lyric poetry, orations, historical works, didactic treatises and so on, by authors known and unknown.

However, the vast bulk of Grenfell and Hunt’s finds was of documentary texts, public and private, of every type, mostly in Greek, from the Ptolemaic period to the Fatimid era, but mainly Roman and Byzantine. Among those was the copy of Germanicus’ speech, copied with frequent mistakes by an incompetent scribe or schoolboy. In Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, which draws on a previously unknown satyr-play by Sophocles found by Grenfell and Hunt, Grenfell is made to wail:

Census, petition, more stuff of that sort,
Judicial proceedings, minutes of the court . . .
O, what’s that? Something I almost missed,
the verso of the Oxyrhynchus census list:
O it’s Pindar, Pindar . . . but not all there,
after all those petitions I was beginning
to despair.

In fact Grenfell’s early interests had been in economic history, and the Oxyrhynchus volumes showed immediate recognition of how the cumulation of cases and detail from individually unexciting texts could allow us to write social and economic history with a level of detail unthinkable for most other areas of the ancient world.

Papyrologists today draw on a century of academic experience and numerous works of reference and interpretation. Grenfell and Hunt were part of the small group of scholars who created that tradition. They worked tirelessly to decipher, interpret and publish the unparallelled range of texts they had found. The format they devised for the numerous volumes of texts they published – general introduction to each text, its transcription, a translation into English, notes on points of detail – set the gold standard in terms of quality and lucidity for papyrological publication.

The EES continues to publish in the same format the series they started of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri; volumes 73 and 74 are in production at the time of writing. To date, through the efforts of several generations of scholars, more than 5,000 texts have been published, making this the best published large collection in the world. To put that in context, it is guesstimated that there are some 1.5 million fragments of papyrus texts kept in public collections worldwide of which some 50,000 (0.3%) have been published. More recently a project at Oxford has been making publicly available online digital images of almost all the published texts, an enormous new resource for those interested in these texts. The work is slow because it is painstaking and requires rare skills, but it is progressing steadily. Who knows what treasures are awaiting decipherment?


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 36. Click here to subscribe

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