Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5072 (3rd century AD), Uncanonical Gospel. Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford. All rights reserved.
Hundreds of thousands of papyrus fragments, retrieved 100 years ago from a dry rubbish dump in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, have been put online in a bid to crowdsource translations.
Written in Greek during a period when Egypt was under the control of a Greek (and later Roman) settler class, the texts include a variety of documents — from works of literature, letters, receipts to gossip.
A fascinating window into ancient lives, the images represent a monumental task: although the scraps of parchment were discovered in 1896, scholars have so far deciphered only two per cent of the text.
Many of the papyri had not been read for over a thousand years.
"We thought it was time we called in some help," project leader Chris Lintott of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, said.
Working in collaboration with Oxford University papyrologists and Egypt Exploration Society, Lintott’s team launched the Ancient Lives website, where armchair archaeologists can help with cataloguing and translating the ancient manuscripts.
Although the phrase "it's all Greek to me" seems to fit perfectly the project, knowledge of the classic language is not necessary.
Visitors to the Ancient Lives website are shown an image of an extract and then you can click on a character in the image and then what you believe is the corresponding Greek character in a keyboard below.
As untranslated fragments appear on the website, character-recognition tools will help people match the letters to symbols. Once the letters have been transliterated, the computer verifies whether the manuscript has been translated by an academic. If not, it passes it on to the scholars for further study.
Researchers have already discovered fragments of a previously unknown "lost" gospel which describes Jesus casting out demons, new letters of the philosopher Epicurus, various dialogues of Plato, a papyrus of the philosopher and poet Empedocles on the anatomy of the eye, Euripides’ lost play Melanippe the Wise, Menander’s Misoumenos, and various plays by Aristophanes.
Among personal and private papers, we learn that Aurelius the sausage-maker has taken out a loan for 9,000 silver denarii, perhaps to expand his business, while in another letter, written in 127 AD, a grandmother called Sarapias, asks that her daughter is brought home so that she can be present at the birth of her grandchild.
Since the website’s launch on Tuesday, volunteers have already transcribed more than 100,000 characters, according to Ancient Lives.
"This effort is pervaded by a spirit of collaboration," said project director Dirk Obbink, lecturer in Papyrology and Greek Literature at the University of Oxford.
"No single pair of eyes can see and read everything. From scientists and professors to school students and ancient enthusiasts, everyone has something to contribute – and gain," Obbink said.