Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The hardest word-search of them all

The hardest word-search of them all: Oxford University appeals for help in transcribing 200,000 ancient Greek letters
By Anna Edwards

It should have been a historian's dream.

When two Oxford University undergraduate students discovered an Egyptian rubbish dump filled with ancient Greek papyri in 1896, they spent ten years meticulously digging for fragments. But 100 years after they brought their precious cargo back to the university, researchers have only managed to transcribe about two per cent of the vast haul.

Now Oxford University is hunting for volunteers with a penchant for puzzles to help them speed up their study and decode the Greek letters. But if the phrase 'it's all Greek to me' seems apt, armchair archaeologists do not need to know a word of the classic language. The project, Ancient Lives, have uploaded hundreds of thousands of images of Greek papyri fragments online.

On the website pattern recognition tools will help people match the letters to symbols. It then translates the words and stores them into a huge database. Excited scholars say among the segments they have found fragments of what they believe is a 'lost gospel', with stories about Jesus.


The Ancient Greeks were the first Europeans to read and write with an Alphabet, which eventually led to all modern European languages. The Ancient Greek Language has different theories of origin; firstly some believe it migrated with the Proto-Greek speakers into the Greek Peninsula, dating from 2500BC to 1700 BC. The second theory considers the migration into Greece happened before Proto-Greek, so the characteristics of Greek sounds were later.

There were three major dialects in ancient Greece; Aeolic, Doric and Ionic.

Early Ancient Greek was also written from right to left.

They have also found letters, documents receipts and 'gossip' that date from 500BC and AD1000, which they say will help them open up a window into the ancient lives of Graeco-Roman Egypt.

Project leader Dr Chris Lintott of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, explained how the treasure trove was discovered - and very nearly destroyed. 'In 1896 students Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt were trekking across Egypt when they came to the city of Oxyrhynchus, the ‘City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish’ and they discovered a rubbish tip,' he said. 'Clearly some people were very good at recycling, as they found so many letters that in some places they had to dig 25ft deep for them. 'They dug for the papyri by hand and at one stage were paying locals by the piece they discovered - so some larger pieces were ripped up. 'They also had to save it from people who wanted to use it for agricultural purposes, as papyrus if so good for composting. 'After a decade they brought them all back. 'But after 100 years we've gone through about two per cent, so we thought it was time we called in some help.'

The texts were written in Greek during a period when Egypt was under the control of a Greek (and later Roman) settler class. Many of the papyri had not been read for over a thousand years. Dr Lintott said already the scholars had unearthed a variety of fascinating insights into everyday life. 'We've already discovered this tiny fragment of what appears to be a lost gospel,' he said. 'We've also got a very formal letter from a 14-year-old boy, telling his father unless he was allowed to go to the big city of Alexandria he was not going to eat or drink. 'So it shows some things never change - including teenagers!'

Fragments of a lost gospel which describes Jesus casting out demons
Presocratic philosopher and poet Empedocles on the anatomy of the eye
Dictys of Crete’s prose re-telling of the Trojan War story
New letters of the philosopher Epicurus
Various dialogues of Plato
Euripides’ lost play Melanippe the Wise,
Elegies of Theognis, Herodotus’ Histories, Menander’s Misoumenos
From today members of the public can help the team, made up of the between Oxford University papyrologists, the Egypt Exploration Society, and a team in Oxford University’s Department of Physics.

The physics department built the ‘citizen science’ project that allows anyone to make an authentic contribution to research.

The scholars believe that they need on average between three and five people to look at each fragment and transcribe it and the majority's answer will be taken, to weed out any individual anomalies or mistakes.

Dr Lintott said: 'We've worked on this site so you don't need to know Greek, the volunteer can look at letters and then then website will suggest words. Lead developer and designer, William MacFarlane of Oxford University’s Department of Physics.‘It’s with the digital advancements of our own age, that we're able to open up this window into the past, and see a common human experience in that intimate, traditional medium, handwriting.’

‘Discovering new texts is always exciting,’ said team papyrologist Dr James Brusuelas, ‘but the fact that you’re reading a piece of literature or a private letter that hasn’t been read in over a thousand years, that’s what I like about papyrology.’

To get involved with the project, visit

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