Oxyrhynchus Papyri Deciphered

by Belle Waring on April 18, 2005

This is one of the most exciting things to have happened in a long time. Scientists using a new photographic technique have made amazing strides in deciphering the famed Oxyrhynchus papyrii (the contents of an Egyptian trash-heap). Apparently, just in the last few days, they have discovered previously unknown writings by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod, and Lucian, as well as a long epic passage from Archilochos. It’s not particularly likely that you’ve ever had a look at how much Archilochos there is in the world, but let me tell you: ain’t a whole lot. Not even one complete poem, if memory serves. (Oxford’s Delectus ex Iambis et Elegis Graecis has all the details.) From the Independent:

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.

Go Mormons! (Now if only you could find those darn gold plates and diamond spectacles!) I know every Classics scholar and enthusiast in the whole world is waiting with bated breath…
On the other hand, this Scotsman headline is enthusiastic but misleading: “’Lost’ classical manuscripts give up their secrets after 9,000 years.” What’s 7,000-odd years among friends, after all?



chris 04.18.05 at 8:10 am

Truly staggering. You get a slight feeling of what it must have been like when Poggio and his mates were rummaging through monastery attics and finding unknown authors year after year.

But there’s no detail! I want to scream at the screen: Fragments from what bloody poem by Hesiod? What plays by Euripides? Give us more! Now!


des von bladet 04.18.05 at 8:13 am

The Scotsman later says
“Material ranges from the 3rd to the 7th centuries BC”, which some hapless sub-editor presumably misread as “millennia”.

I am largely indifferent, but on principle: the (allegedly) important thing about Greek culture is its influence on posterity, dont nous, and long-lost manuscripts hardly qualify as important influences.


Greg 04.18.05 at 8:30 am

For now, Des, for now. We’ve a tendency to rediscover the Classics, drinking from that spring anew. And if our next generation drinks from a fuller spring than we have, well, so much the better.

And of course any spare plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, or Aristophanes would go down very nicely. For an encore they could get stuck into that carbonised library in Herculaneum.

Me, I’m hoping for something to turn up somewhere to throw some light on the wars for Sicily, and on what Greek warfare was really like before the Persian wars… I’d also rather like the lost books of Polybius and Livy to turn up somewhere, and the odd missing Plutarch bio…


Jackmormon 04.18.05 at 8:40 am

Des, how can you be so indifferent? the texts in themselves are interesting. And the principle of influence is a red herring because they weren’t always “long-lost” and may have had great influence on Greek culture of the time or directly afterwards.

BTW, Belle, my understanding is that the holy grail of Mormon archeology is not to find the gold plates, but rather to find archeological evidence that a group of Jews crossed the sea and settled in the New World before the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. No break-throughs have yet been reported, but then I haven’t been following the endeavor with bated breath.


Simstim 04.18.05 at 8:49 am

I’m partly with Des on this one. It’s not the “true” historical reality of ancient Greek culture that’s most significant, but rather its influence since on Western intellectual/cultural endeavour. I take jackmormon’s point that they might be interesting in their own right however.


des von bladet 04.18.05 at 8:50 am

Jackmormon: That sounds indirect to the point of homeopathy. If it helps, I’ll admit I have a long-standing downer on all known variants of the “Our Glorious Ancestors” riff, even in its purely cultural form. I don’t buy it when it comes to the Velvet Underground, even.


chris 04.18.05 at 9:02 am

Des (comment 6)

So what? Everybody knows that, in the immortal words of Stephen Leacock, “the classics are primitive literature”, but primitive or not, a lot of it is damned good, and a lot of it is extremely informative. So enjoy. Or are you arguing against the study of literature and history altogether?


des von bladet 04.18.05 at 9:16 am

Chris: I rejoice, then, to the extent that the world had previously struck me as worryingly short of good literature.

If you genuinely were short of Archilochos fragments then I wish you and the classicistes the deepest of joys, for sure, but, like the goldfish in the old joke, I hadn’t finished the last lot yet.


mason 04.18.05 at 9:30 am

the classics! great taste! less filling! Will these be simply by default, classics? hmmm…

i can understand their value as added context for themselves and our(over)(under)&(mis)interpretation of them.

i personally look forward to the Hesiod just cause it’s nice to stay in touch with the stony fellow, but most folks will be after political and social nuggets, to reinforce old and existing arguements.

in a strange way i am kind of sad. i mean we’ve already bungled civilisation. i feel we are bound and determined not to learn any more from our mistakes and more likely to insist upon what we think we know and who we think we are. i can hear pundits now: “Just to what degree should we or are we obliged to think differently?”

– mason


Joel Turnipseed 04.18.05 at 9:35 am

[…] just where […]
the kingdom
[…] a man […]
I put a spike into […]
Jesus’ son
[…] I [ ] know […]
that I [ ] don’t know


[…] to nullify […]
the blood
[…] sweet girls [ ] sweet [ ] talk


[…] a thousand years ago […]
the darkened seas
[…] great nail clippers […]
In a sailor’s suit


[…] the big city […]
Where a man can [ ] be free
Of all of the evils of this town
And of himself, and those around
[…] I [ ] know […]
[…] that I [ ] know […]


[ ] the death of me
[…] my wife [
… ]
in my head
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds


[…] that blood [ ] in my head […]
Then [ ] God that [ ] dead


Then [ ] God [ ] not aware
[ … ] I don’t know [ … ]
[ … ] that I [ ] know [ … ]

From Die Riker’s Insel Papyrus, ca. 1885. (Hochschulpresse von Buenos Aires, 3042)


Joel Turnipseed 04.18.05 at 9:44 am

les esprit d’escalier: went to get coffee and realized I got the book wrong–s/be Die Riker’s Insel Xeroxen, ca. 1885.


Barry Freed 04.18.05 at 10:46 am

I for one find them interesting in their own right. But for those who discount their importance because (presumably) they are outside the chain of transmission to Western culture this displays a profound ignorance of the history of that transmission (a point that jackmormon alluded to.) I fully expect these texts to yield greater insight into the history of that influence. I expect that we will be surprised to find hitherto unknown influences in on Western culture due to this discovery.

For instance, I hope for more light to be shed upon the heroine of the epic cycle that Mr. Turnipseed posted.



Richard Bellamy 04.18.05 at 10:58 am

I am largely indifferent, but on principle: the (allegedly) important thing about Greek culture is its influence on posterity, dont nous, and long-lost manuscripts hardly qualify as important influences.

Anxiously awaited in the translation of the long lost and unknown 5th century B.C. Sophocles farce “Jashu’a” about the zany Jew who, after Zeus steals his wife, convinces people he is God, fakes his death and then pretends to “rise” three days later.

Some scholars suggest it may have been an “early source” for future literary works of greater reknown.


y81 04.18.05 at 11:52 am

Boy, what Philistines we have here! I am with Belle about how exciting this is. What human being could be indifferent to the possibility of more Sappho?

Also, as one of the earlier commentators, many earliers writers did have Greek manuscripts now lost to us (e.g., Catullus was familiar with the entire Sapphic corpus), so these texts have formed our culture, indirectly. Now we may have more direct access.

kai gar ai pheugei, tacheos dioxei.
ai de dora me deket’, alla dosei.
ai de me philei, tacheos philesei
kouk’ etheloisa.


chris 04.18.05 at 12:06 pm

To be fair, there’s only one real Philistine here. Everybody else is having a go.

Well, roll on a decent sized fragment of Phrynicus and the identity of the author of the Hellenica Oxyrhyncia. And if you’re not interested, go and do whatever floats your boat. We won’t come bothering you.


John Emerson 04.18.05 at 12:21 pm

But is Des realy “real”?

Turnipseed’s obliquely stated point could be pretty telling. If there are few consecutive passages as long as two full lines, this will mostly be of interest to lexicographers philologists. “This shows that the ablative dual was already porsent in the early fourth century BC”.

There’s a bit of unnecessary pessimism in the principled conviction that the direct influence of these new manuscripts on us cannot have the same kind of influence on us that the direct influence of different new manuscripts of Greek texts had on the Renaissance humanists. As if we were a bunch of lames, humanistically speaking.

But are we a bunch of lames? Perhaps that was Des’s real point.

A side note: the much-maligned Mormons have made interesting contributions to several areas of study, as have many ex-Mormons (possibly including our friend jackmormon here). And for the record, Mormon theology is no more ridiculous per se than every other theology that ever was. It just suffers under the handicap of being much better documented than any of the others.


alkali 04.18.05 at 12:31 pm

Note that the Greek/Latin literary corpus we have is not a thoughtful selection of the best available. The better works were to some extent more likely to survive just because there were copies, but a significant reason why we have what we have is just accidental. Nine of the surviving plays by Euripides happen to have been preserved in one volume of an alphabetical set, like those stray Britannica volumes you sometimes see as props in furniture showrooms. There is a chance of finding some real treasures here; it’s not Shakespeare’s grocery list.

(On the other hand, perhaps we’ll be terribly disappointed. If Thucydides’ history concludes by remarking that “sometimes stuff, well, just happens, and I’ll be damned if I know why” I’m going to want a tuition refund on certain college classes I took.)


Jaybird 04.18.05 at 12:35 pm

I’m hoping that there are some new plots to be discovered.

Hollywood is this close to being tapped out.


Simstim 04.18.05 at 12:39 pm

Quite warranted pessimism I’d say (indeed self-fulfilling as a bonus). A radically new understanding of the ancient Greeks would excite a few historians, classicists and that tiny sliver of humanity that claims to take an interest in such matters. The rest of us would carry on living in the modern (yes, modern) world. Even if Richard Bellamy’s suggested discovery were to be true I very much doubt it would have an impact on the theology of 99.9% of the world’s current population.


des von bladet 04.18.05 at 12:41 pm

There’s a bit of unnecessary pessimism in the principled conviction that the direct influence of these new manuscripts on us cannot have the same kind of influence on us that the direct influence of different new manuscripts of Greek texts had on the Renaissance humanists.

You’re joking me, isn’t it? The point of the Standard Cartoon Renaissance is surely that direct contact with texts from Actual Antiquity was the first serious challenge the hegemony of the church’s historical narrative.

I don’t think there’s the remotest scope for cultural fallout within three (3) orders of magnitude of that, and I don’t especially think that means we’re a “bunch of lames, humanistically speaking”, either.

The relationship between contingency and causality in history, and especially perhaps in the history of ideas, is always going to be thorny, but classicistes have an obviously vested interest in big-upping the Greek strain in Western culture. This dredging of one (1) tributary to our culture will, quite properly, be of interest mostly to (if not mostly of interest to) those who live by its banks.


Joel Turnipseed 04.18.05 at 1:10 pm

Not three orders of magnitude? 1/1000th? What if we found a War Epic by Callimachus (and would it be better if it was a really bad early work or a really great late work)? Or, and I would do flips in the street, the dialogues of Aristotle, which Cicero praised so highly?


bi 04.18.05 at 1:14 pm

I wonder what des von bladet has against those “hrmph! those ivory tower classicistes **snort**” when they’re just trying to find out more about the past. And they aren’t even harming any small animals in the process.


Simstim 04.18.05 at 1:17 pm

There’s nothing wrong about finding out more about the past, just that it doesn’t have much of an effect beyond finding out more about the past.


Joel Turnipseed 04.18.05 at 1:19 pm

bi – it’s true: the old Oxonii blue books are small, and light–as are the Loeb’s, but have you ever dropped the Liddell Scott-Jones on a small animal?


Steve LaBonne 04.18.05 at 1:53 pm

Speaking of Mormons, they have performed yeoman service to the expansion of knowledge in another department- their obsession with genealogical records has made them a gold mine for human geneticists. Alas, the science of genetics has rudely requited this assistance by making it clear that the ancestors of Native Americans came from Asia rather than Palestine…


John Emerson 04.18.05 at 3:12 pm

Jeez, Des, there are other things in the world besides Princessin. And note, I didn’t say the same order of magnitude of influence, just same kind of influence — i.e. direct perception of something old but newly-discovered which had not been pre-processed by 2000 years of citations and cliches.

If this research ends up, for example, doubling the usable amount of Greek lyric poetry available, which is pretty tiny, that would be something pretty big in my opinion. In terms of orders of magnitude, I’ll grant you one and perhaps two, but not three.


Colin Danby 04.18.05 at 3:14 pm

Here are some Archilochos fragments translated:

A world in which there are more of these, or a few more Euripides or Sophocles plays, would be a better world, period. Plato and Aristotle are important because you can read them now and *learn* from them, not just about “the past” but about how to think clearly in the present. The “tributary” model of culture, as though it’s spread out in time from isolated mountain springs in the past to to a mighty river in the present, is bollocks.

So I’m with Joel that I don’t rule out finding stuff that will help us think better, especially as we’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the material that we do have. (And, Joel, I really liked the _Xeroxen_, especially “nail clippers.” Although this point will be lost on the Philistines, even finding a lot of mundane ancient Greek writing might help us bulk up those lexicons with more attestations for scarce words, perhaps resolving interpretations of texts we already have.)


terceiro 04.18.05 at 3:15 pm

De-lurking just to say, on behalf of Mormons everywhere: you’re welcome. Thank you for not kvetching about the evils of a church which asks its members to pay a tithe. Where do you think the BYU money comes from?

And, speaking personally, it’s not proof we’re looking for; faith needs no proof. It’s a fun game, but there is no conclusive proof which would either prove nor disprove my religious belief.

Why bother, then? Because while proof isn’t important in Mormon theology, Truth (capital T) is. We sing about it, write about it, preach about it. Which is why I wouldn’t bother to try to spin the data (nor stories from the Book of Mormon) to somehow agree with theology.


Andrew Boucher 04.18.05 at 3:19 pm

“There’s nothing wrong about finding out more about the past, just that it doesn’t have much of an effect beyond finding out more about the past.” This is rather self-fulfilling, isn’t it? To say that one doesn’t care because it doesn’t matter, means that one won’t care.

Anyway, the Greek books we need most to recover are the Elements by Euclid’s predecessors.


Aaron Baker 04.18.05 at 3:54 pm

Fascinating post, and good news, too. The requisite pedantic comment, however, from a former Classics prof: it’s papyri, not papyrii.


Nat Whilk 04.18.05 at 5:41 pm

Steve Labonne wrote: “Speaking of Mormons, they have performed yeoman service to the expansion of knowledge in another department- their obsession with genealogical records has made them a gold mine for human geneticists. Alas, the science of genetics has rudely requited this assistance by making it clear that the ancestors of Native Americans came from Asia rather than Palestine

What continent has Palestine been moved to?


John Emerson 04.18.05 at 8:44 pm

Palestine no longer exists, if it ever did.



Steve LaBonne 04.18.05 at 9:22 pm

Yes, that really wasn’t very well phrased, was it. To avoid both that problem and Mr. Emerson’s may I say “East Asia rather than West Asia” instead? ;)


Belle Waring 04.18.05 at 10:16 pm

aaron, um, so it is. changed that…


Simstim 04.19.05 at 3:27 am

Andrew Boucher: not news to me, see my comment above about warranted pessimism (and in any case, I thought consistency was a virtue?) I’d be interested if any of these new finds manage to say something new about any of the sub-fields that I’m interested in and even here I suspect that I’m being more excited than the vast majority of scholars, let alone lay people. A cliche, but it’s not pessimism, rather, it’s realism.


Bistroist 04.19.05 at 4:18 am

Though I’m a bit sceptic about how much new text will eventually come out of this, I’d just like to point out, esp. to those who would write out this whole thing off as irrelevant, that many of the texts we find siginificant today have only been rediscovered quite recently, eg. Angelo Mais discoveries in palimpsest of the 19th century, or the Nag Hammadi manuscripts of the 20th.

And I hope
“There’s nothing wrong about finding out more about the past, just that it doesn’t have much of an effect beyond finding out more about the past.”
was a deliberate flamebait, not a genuine display of ignorance… :p


Bistroist 04.19.05 at 4:22 am

Typo’s en masse in the above, I’m afraid, bear with me…


Bistroist 04.19.05 at 4:33 am

Oh, one last thing: Andrew Leonard has a quite good column on this at Salon.com.

Right. I’ll shut up now.



John Emerson 04.19.05 at 11:08 am

In ancient Chinese studies archeological discoveries of this type during the last century had massive influences on the understanding of Chinese history and culture. China is still more culturalist and traditionalist than we are, so these discoveries evn had real-world political consequences.


Simstim 04.19.05 at 1:36 pm

OK, I’ll grant that in a culture that values history/tradition etc. then a changed understanding of history does have a wider effect, but we are suggesting that in modern Western society, a society that can be characterised as ahistorical, presentist or futurist, a changed understanding of the ancient Greeks is not going change much else outside of academia. Frankly, the discovery of an unknown Beatles album would have more of an impact and even that’s ancient history to most.


Bistroist 04.19.05 at 4:53 pm

Ah yes, but the White Album wasn’t used to justify spreading democracy in the Middle East, was it?

The theory of Democratic Peace was, and a brief glance at the ancient Greeks would swiftly debunk that theory…

I agree with you up to a point. Much, probably most, of what is likely to be discovered will be relevant mainly to us geeks. But there is still the possibility that something will turn up of interest to the average layperson.

Western society can be characterised as ahistorical in some ways, yes, but political decisions are still “framed” and justified through historical references. As such, a deeper understanding of history can only work to our advantage.


Colin Danby 04.19.05 at 9:34 pm

I tend to think the category “modern Western society” is bollocks too if we mean that there exists a single coherent object of analysis that we can apply adjectives to.

Nor is it even necessarily a question of a “changed understanding of the ancient Greeks” but of better ways to understand the world. Think of the Book of Exodus. It’s certainly a window into a particular historical past, but it has also been a powerful tool for thinking about slavery in more recent periods. Then think of Oedipus, Plato’s Republic, Sappho’s love poetry, all tools for thought … do people go to see King Lear only out of an antiquarian interest in Elizabethan England?


Simstim 04.20.05 at 6:17 am

Bistroist: Yes, Western society still has legitimation-through-history but these, as in the “olden days”, are politicised-popularised-narrativised histories that rarely match those of current scholars.

Colin: First point taken, although I’d talking about hegemonic/dominant/popular segments of hegemonic/dominant societies rather than a monolithic totality. I also have nothing against reading old stuff for new ideas, it’s just that it doesn’t really matter where the old stuff comes from, it’s the ideas that matter.


language hat 04.20.05 at 10:05 am

Jeez, Des, there are other things in the world besides Princessin.

Tsk, that’s “princessor,” takk. And Des is just engaged in his favorite pastime of taking the piss out of everything that is not related to princessor. The rest of the philistines can be ignored; if they want to turn up their collective nose at Dead White Males, it’s their loss.


Gerald Rittenberg 04.22.05 at 5:50 pm

Can anyone shed additional light on the validity of the startling account in the initial Independent article? I can’t seem to find any factual follow-up.


Bistroist 04.22.05 at 6:57 pm

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