Egypt Exploration Society / Oxford Imaging Papyri Project
A 3rd-century papyrus fragment contains a snippet of text from a non-canonical Christian gospel.
Scientists are recruiting thousands of armchair archaeologists to help them decipher a “lost” gospel and other fragments of texts from ancient Egypt.
The Ancient Lives project draws upon the same type of people power that drives citizen-science projects such as Galaxy Zoo, Planet Hunters, Foldit and EteRNA. In all these cases, legions of human eyes and brains can do a better job of sifting through massive databases than supercomputers. For this particular project, however, the monster database that needs to be tamed does not consist of sky-survey data or molecular combinations — rather, they’re ink letters, scrawled in Greek on centuries-old bits of papyrus.
Oxford University launched Ancient Lives just a couple of days ago, but project leader Chris Lintott told me that more than 400,000 papyrus images have already been served up as of today. “It’s been a crazy few days,” he said in an email.
Deluge of documents
That’s the kind of participation Ancient Lives will need in order to cope with the deluge of documents from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. More than a century ago, archaeologists unearthed piles of papyrus pieces in an ancient rubbish dump near an Egyptian city once known as Oxyrhynchus, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Cairo. The manuscripts have been dated to between the 1st and the 6th century, covering a time when Greek and Roman culture was dominant in Egypt.
This papyrus from the 2nd or 3rd century is inscribed with an ink drawing showing the goddess Agnoia (“Ignorance”), from an illustrated edition of Menander’s comedy “Perikeiromene,” or “The Girl Who Had Her Hair Shorn.”
Since its discovery, the treasure trove has yielded up some masterpieces of the age, including the comedies of Menander, the poems of Sappho and the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Thousands of fragments have been cataloged and decoded. The only problem is, there are hundreds of thousands of fragments to go.
“Most of these haven’t been read, and they weren’t cataloged in what must have been extremely trying conditions in the field,” said Lintott, an Oxford physicist and one of the pioneers behind Galaxy Zoo and its Zooniverse spin-offs. “As a result, our professional colleagues have been searching blind for the last century, like trying to do research by randomly selecting books off the Bodleian Libraryshelves.”
University of Minnesota physicist Lucy Fortson, another project leader, said the fragments are completely out of sequence. “It’s like if you have thousands of puzzles, take all the pieces and mix them together in one big box. Then you try to put the puzzles together,” she said in a news release. “It’s an enormous task.”