What's up with the Oxyrhynchus papryi?
November 4, 2005 10:44 PM   Subscribe

In the spring there was a lot of discussion about the Oxyrhynchus papyri, but since then the news has totally died down. Has anything new been deciphered yet?

A lot of stuff was supposedly in those papyri. I feel like if we had a Sappho poem in June, they'd at least have some idea of what else we're going to get. Maybe I'm just really impatient.
posted by ScotchLynx to Writing & Language (2 answers total)
My impression is that the sudden burst of news was pretty much a matter of hype: the excavations have been going on for many years, somebody put out a press release saying OMG NEW SAPPHO POEM!!! (it's actually a more complete version of a well-known fragment, but still very nice to have) and the press ran with it, acting like those crazy scientists had just discovered a magnificent treasure trove and we'd be getting a complete edition of Aeschylus any day now. In fact, it's still the same old collection of shreds and patches, being patiently sifted for interesting letters, tax bills, and scraps of literature. So keep a weather eye out but don't hold your breath.
posted by languagehat at 5:58 AM on November 5, 2005

The discussion last April was about the use of multi-spectral imaging (MSI) to aid in the decipherment of the papyri. You can read more about the new technology here, on the POxy (Oxyrhynchus Online) website, where there is an interesting Flash presentation with 'before' and 'after' images of some of the papyri. It all looks very promising -- and my impression is that MSI will be a very useful tool in deciphering difficult words and letters that can't be read under normal light. (And if you want to know why this matters, see here for an interesting case study -- a poem by Simonides where the entire interpretation hangs on the reading of a single word, indeed a single letter.)

The likelihood is, however, that any new poems or plays that emerge in the next few years are going to be brought to light not by new technology but by good old-fashioned scholarship. The Sappho poem is a case in point. The text in the Oxyrhynchus papyri was published as long ago as 1922, but it was so incomplete that no one could recognise it for what it was. Then in 2004, another papyrus in the University of Cologne turned out to contain fragments of the same poem; and by putting the fragments together, scholars were able to reconstruct the whole text. A great discovery, but not the sort of thing that happens every day -- and if you're expecting a whole flood of new texts from the ancient world, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. (Still, we can always hope ..)

And of course, even if any new literary texts do turn up, there's no guarantee that they'll be by the likes of Sappho or Simonides. As several people remarked in an earlier Metafilter thread about the Herculaneum papyri, it would be amusing if, instead of the lost works of Aristotle, they turned out to be the ancient equivalents of Dan Brown or Danielle Steele. Two colleagues of mine had a hand in translating another of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the so-called 'Charition mime' (POxy 413), a wretched parody of Euripides containing the immortal line 'go and perform cunnilingus on that bilgepipe'. As one of them remarked, it was a bit depressing to think of this stuff having survived when so much else had been lost.
posted by verstegan at 2:37 PM on November 5, 2005

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