For the past century, the vicinity of Oxyrhynchus has been continually excavated, yielding an enormous collection of papyrus texts dating from the time of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of Egyptian history. Approximately 70 percent of all the ancient Egyptian literary papyri so far discovered come from Oxyrhynchus, including copies of well-known standard works (many in versions significantly closer to the originals than those that had been transmitted in medieval manuscripts) and previously unknown works by the greatest authors of antiquity. Thus the site is of enormous archaeological significance. Among the texts discovered at Oxyrhynchus are plays of Menander and fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian document.
The town was named after a species of fish in the Nile River that was also important in Egyptian mythology. According to ancient Egyptian legend, a fish is said to have eaten the penis of Osiris, though it is not known exactly which species of fish this was. One possibility is a species freshwater fish, called the mormyrid, which have distinctive downturned snouts or barbels. A figurine from Oxyrhynchus of a fish has many attributes typical of mormyrids: a long anal fin, a small caudal fin, widely spaced pelvic and pectoral fins, and of course the downturned snout.
Oxyrhynchus lies west of the main course of the Nile, on the Bahr Yussef (Canal of Joseph), a branch of the Nile that terminates in Lake Moeris and the Fayum oasis. In ancient Egyptian times, there was a city on the site called Pr-Medjed, which was the capital of the 19th Upper Egyptian Nome. After the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E., the city was reestablished as a Greek town, called Oxyrhynchou Polis (Οξυρρύγχου Πόλις - "town of the sharp-snouted fish").
In Hellenistic times, Oxyrhynchus was a prosperous regional capital, the third-largest city in Egypt. Once Egypt was Christianized, it became famous for its many churches and monasteries. It remained a prominent, though gradually declining, town in the Roman and Byzantine periods. After the Arab invasion of Egypt in 641 C.E., the canal system on which the town depended fell into disrepair, and Oxyrhynchus lost its vitality. Today the town of el-Bahnasa occupies part of the ancient site.
For more than 1,000 years, the inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus dumped garbage at a series of sites out in the desert sands beyond the town limits. The fact that the town was built on a canal rather than on the Nile itself was important, because this meant that the area did not flood every year with the rising of the river, as did the districts along the riverbank. When the canals dried up, the water table fell and never rose again. The area west of the Nile has virtually no rain, so the garbage dumps of Oxyrhynchus were gradually covered with sand and were forgotten for another 1,000 years.
Because Egyptian society under the Greeks and Romans was governed bureaucratically, and because Oxyrhynchus was the capital of the 19th nome, the material at the Oxyrhynchus dumps included vast amounts of paper. Accounts, tax returns, census material, invoices, receipts, correspondence on administrative, military, religious, economic, and political matters, certificates and licenses of all kinds—all these were periodically cleaned out of government offices, put in wicker baskets, and dumped out in the desert. Private citizens added their own piles of unwanted paper. Because papyrus was expensive, paper was often reused: a document might have farm accounts on one side, and a student's text of Homer on the other. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, therefore, contained a broad record of the life of the town, and of the civilizations and empires of which the town was a part.
The town site of Oxyrhynchus itself has never been excavated, because the modern Egyptian town is built on top of it, but it is believed that the city had many public buildings, including a theatre with a capacity of 11,000 spectators, a hippodrome, four public baths, a gymnasium, and two small ports on the Bahr Yussef. It is also likely that there were military buildings, such as barracks, since the city supported a military garrison on several occasions during the Roman and Byzantine periods. Under Greek and Roman rule, Oxyrhynchus had temples to Serapis, Zeus-Amun, Hera-Isis, Atargatis-Bethnnis and Osiris. There were also Greek temples to Demeter, Dionysus, Hermes, and Apollo; as well as Roman temples to Jupiter Capitolinus and Mars. In the Christian era, Oxyrhynchus was the seat of a bishopric, and the modern town still has several ancient Coptic Christian churches.
When Flinders Petrie visited Oxyrhynchus in 1922, he found remains of the colonnades and theatre. Now only part of a single column remains: everything else has been scavenged for building material for modern housing.
In 1882, Egypt, while still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, came under effective British rule, and British archaeologists began the systematic exploration of the country. Since Oxyrhynchus was not considered an Ancient Egyptian site of any importance, it was neglected until 1896, when two young excavators, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, both fellows of Queen's College, Oxford, began to excavate it. "My first impressions on examining the site were not very favourable," wrote Grenfell. "The rubbish mounds were nothing but rubbish mounds." However, they very soon realized what they had found. The unique combination of climate and circumstance had left at Oxyrhynchus an unequalled archive of the ancient world. "The flow of papyri soon became a torrent," Grenfell recalled. "Merely turning up the soil with one's boot would frequently disclose a layer."
Being classically educated Englishmen, Grenfell and Hunt were mainly interested in the possibility that Oxyrhynchus might reveal the lost masterpieces of classical Greek literature. They knew, for example, that the Constitution of Athens by Aristotle had been discovered on Egyptian papyrus in 1890. This hope inspired them and their successors to sift through the mountains of rubbish at Oxyrhynchus for the next century. Their efforts were amply rewarded: it has been estimated that over 70% of all the literary papyri so far discovered come from Oxyrhynchus, both copies of well-known standard works (many in versions significantly closer to the originals than those that had been transmitted in medieval manuscripts) and previously unknown works by the greatest authors of antiquity.
However, from the many thousands of papyri excavated from Oxyrhynchus, only about 10 percent were literary. The rest consisted of public and private documents: codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records, sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes, and private letters. Still, Grenfell and Hunt found enough texts of more general interest to keep them going in the hope of finding more. In their first year of digging alone, they found parts of several lost plays of Sophocles, such as the Ichneutae and many other books and fragments, including parts of what appeared to be an unknown Christian gospel. These discoveries captured the public imagination, and Grenfell and Hunt sent articles and photos to newspapers in Britain, arguing the importance of their work and seeking donations to keep it going.
Aside from the years of World War I, Grenfell and Hunt devoted their lives to work on the material from Oxyrhynchus. For ten years, from 1896 to 1906, every winter, when the Egyptian climate was bearable, Grenfell and Hunt supervised hundreds of Egyptian workers, excavating the rubbish mounds, digging up tightly packed layers of papyrus mixed with earth. The finds were sifted, partially cleaned and then shipped to Grenfell and Hunt's base at Oxford. During the summer, Grenfell and Hunt cleaned, sorted, translated and compared the year's haul, assembling complete texts from dozens of fragments and extracts. In 1898, they published the first volume of their finds. They worked closely together, each revising what the other wrote, and publishing the result jointly. In 1920, however, Grenfell died, leaving Hunt to continue the work with other collaborators until his own death in 1934. Meanwhile, Italian excavators had returned to the site: their work, from 1910 to 1934, brought to light many further papyri, including additional pieces of papyrus rolls of which parts had already been discovered by Grenfell and Hunt.
Although the hope of finding all the lost literary works of antiquity at Oxyrhynchus was not realized, many important Greek texts were found at the site. These include poems of Pindar, fragments of Sappho and Alcaeus, along with larger pieces of Alcman, Ibycus, and Corinna.
There were also extensive remains of the Hypsipyle of Euripides, a large portion of the plays of Menander, and a large part of the Ichneutae of Sophocles. (The latter work was adapted, in 1988, into a play entitled The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, by British poet and author Tony Harrison, featuring Grenfell and Hunt as main characters). Also found were the oldest and most complete diagrams from Euclid's Elements. Another important find was the historical work known as the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, whose author is unknown but may be Ephorus or, as many currently think, Cratippus. A life of Euripides by Satyrus the Peripatetic was also unearthed, while an epitome of some of the lost books of Livy was the most important literary find in Latin.
The classical author who has most benefited from the finds at Oxyrhynchus is the Athenian playwright Menander (342–291 B.C.E.), whose comedies were very popular in Hellenistic times and whose works are frequently found in papyrus fragments. Menander's plays found in fragments at Oxyrhynchus include Misoumenos, Dis Exapaton, Epitrepontes, Karchedonios, and Kolax. These recovered works have greatly raised Menander's status among classicists and scholars of Greek theatre.
Among the Christian texts found at Oxyrhynchus, were fragments of early non-canonical Gospels, Oxyrhynchus 840 (third century C.E.) and Oxyrhynchus 1224 (fourth century C.E.). Other Oxyrhynchus texts preserve parts of [[Gospel of Matthew|Matthew 1 (third century: P2 and P401), 11–12 and 19 (third to fourth century: P2384, 2385); Mark 10–11 (fifth to sixth century: P3); John 1, and 20 (third century: P208); Romans 1 (fourth century: P209); the First Epistle of John (fourth-fifth century: P402); the Apocalypse of Baruch (chapters 12–14; fourth or fifth century: P403); the Gospel according to the Hebrews (third century C.E.: P655); The Shepherd of Hermas (third or fourth century: P404), and a work of Irenaeus, (third century: P405). There are many parts of other canonical books as well as many early Christian hymns, prayers, and letters also found among them. Reports of fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, also known as the Sayings of Jesus, appearing on P1654 are spurious. This fragment, probably dating ca. 150 C.E., actually contains an account of notarial expenses, indicating that the Gospel had been used as scrap for calculations.
Since the 1930s, work on the papyri has continued. For the past twenty years, it has been under the supervision of Professor Peter Parsons of Oxford. Seventy large volumes of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri have been published, and these have become an essential reference work for the study of Egypt between the 4th century B.C.E. and the 7th century C.E. They are also extremely important for the history of the early Christian Church, since many Christian documents have been found at Oxyrhynchus in far earlier versions than those known elsewhere. At least another forty volumes are anticipated.
Since the days of Grenfell and Hunt, the focus of attention at Oxyrhynchus has shifted. Modern archaeologists are less interested in finding the lost plays of Aeschylus, (although some still dig in hope), and are more focused on learning about the social, economic, and political life of the ancient world. This shift in emphasis had made Oxyrhynchus, if anything, even more important, for the very ordinariness of most of its preserved documents makes them most valuable for modern scholars of social history. Many works on Egyptian and Roman social and economic history and on the history of Christianity rely heavily on documents from Oxyrhynchus.
In 1966, the publication of the papyri was formally adopted as a Major Research Project of the British Academy, jointly managed by Oxford University and University College London and headed by Parsons. The project's chief researcher and administrator is Dr. Nikolaos Gonis. The Academy provided funding until 1999; the project then enjoyed a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, which funded ongoing work until 2005. Today some 100,000 papyrus fragments are housed at the Sackler Library, Oxford, with their indexes, archives and photographic record; it is the biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world. About 2,000 items are mounted in glass — the rest are conserved in 800 boxes.
The focus of the project is now mainly on the publication of this vast archive of material: by 2003, 4,700 items had been translated, edited and published. Publication continues at the rate of about one new volume each year. Each volume contains a selection of material, covering a wide range of subjects. The editors include senior professionals but also students studying papyrology at the doctoral or undergraduate level. Published volumes offer early fragments of the Gospels and of the Book of Revelation, early witnesses to the texts of Apollonius Rhodius, Aristophanes, Demosthenes, and Euripides, previously unknown texts of Simonides and Menander and of the epigrammatist Nicarchus. Other subjects covered include specimens of Greek music and documents relating to magic and astrology.
A joint project with Brigham Young University using multi-spectral imaging technology has been extremely successful in recovering previously illegible writing. With multi-spectral imaging, many pictures of the illegible papyrus are taken using different filters, finely tuned to capture certain wavelengths of light. Thus, researchers can find the optimum spectral portion for distinguishing ink from paper in order to display otherwise completely illegible papyri. The amount of text potentially to be deciphered by this technique is huge. A selection of the images obtained during the project and more information on the latest discoveries has been provided on the project's website.
All links retrieved January 8, 2019.
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