UPDATE: Take with grain of salt.
Holy smokes. This is as exciting in the Classical world as it would be in the paleontological world if somebody found a perfectly preserved mammoth in a glacier, thawed it out, and it woke up, trumpeted, and then gave birth to a litter.
For the first time since about ’96, I regret leaving the field of Classics.
The papyrus fragments were discovered in historic dumps outside the Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus (“city of the sharp-nosed fish”) in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Running to 400,000 fragments, stored in 800 boxes at Oxford’s Sackler Library, it is the biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world.
The previously unknown texts, read for the first time last week, include parts of a long-lost tragedy – the Epigonoi (“Progeny”) by the 5th-century BC Greek playwright Sophocles; part of a lost novel by the 2nd-century Greek writer Lucian; unknown material by Euripides; mythological poetry by the 1st-century BC Greek poet Parthenios; work by the 7th-century BC poet Hesiod; and an epic poem by Archilochos, a 7th-century successor of Homer, describing events leading up to the Trojan War. Additional material from Hesiod, Euripides and Sophocles almost certainly await discovery.
Oxford academics have been working alongside infra-red specialists from Brigham Young University, Utah. Their operation is likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth. It could easily double the surviving body of lesser work – the pulp fiction and sitcoms of the day.
“The Oxyrhynchus collection is of unparalleled importance – especially now that it can be read fully and relatively quickly,” said the Oxford academic directing the research, Dr Dirk Obbink. “The material will shed light on virtually every aspect of life in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, and, by extension, in the classical world as a whole.”
The breakthrough has also caught the imagination of cultural commentators. Melvyn Bragg, author and presenter, said: “It’s the most fantastic news. There are two things here. The first is how enormously influential the Greeks were in science and the arts. The second is how little of their writing we have. The prospect of having more to look at is wonderful.”
Bettany Hughes, historian and broadcaster, who has presented TV series including Mysteries of the Ancients and The Spartans, said: “Egyptian rubbish dumps were gold mines. The classical corpus is like a jigsaw puzzle picked up at a jumble sale – many more pieces missing than are there. Scholars have always mourned the loss of works of genius – plays by Sophocles, Sappho’s other poems, epics. These discoveries promise to change the textual map of the golden ages of Greece and Rome.”
When it has all been read – mainly in Greek, but sometimes in Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic, Nubian and early Persian – the new material will probably add up to around five million words. Texts deciphered over the past few days will be published next month by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, which financed the discovery and owns the collection.