Rubbish Reveals Sophocles

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Oxford University scientists have used infra-red technology to open up a hoard of ancient papyri which could potentially reveal hundreds of lost Greek poems, tragedies and plays and bring about a ‘second Renaissance’.
The collection, known as the ‘Oxyrhynchus Collection’ is the largest collection of classical manuscripts in the world. It contains over 800 boxes with more than 400,000 papyrus fragments. It is now stored in Oxford’s own Sackler library where specialists are applying the new, cutting edge imagery technology to reveal lost works by classical authors including Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and Lucian. The works of Sophocles, the giant of the golden age of Greek civilisation, are particularly sought after. The potential to decipher more of his works is eagerly anticipated by classicists around the world.
The Oxyrhynchus Collection was excavated in the late 19th Century by members of the Egypt Exploration Society. When they were uncovered in a rubbish tip in the city, the papyri were worthless to the naked eye. They were worm-eaten and corroded. The condition in which they were found meant that since the collection was transported to Britain more than a hundred years ago (often in biscuit tins) the process of decipherment has been painfully slow.
Professor Parsons of Christ Church, who has been wrestling with the Oxyrhynchus Collection for more than forty years explains, “for a long time we have been photographing the fragments by infra-red or ultra-violet light to bring up traces of ink.” Now scientists at Oxford, in collaboration with specialists from Bringham Young University in Utah, have begun applying multi-spectral imaging techniques developed from satellite technology to illegible sections of the papyri. “Multi-spectral imaging is going to produce the best results yet, since it combines digital imaging (so that the images can be enhanced by a computer) with the whole spectrum of light wave-lengths.”
As the director of the Oxyrhynchus project, Dr Dirk Obbink toldCherwell that the development is “a significant discovery in that it will broaden the already substantial base of lost Greek and Latin Literature and writing in general that we have represented in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection in the Sackler, and in papyrus collections around the world.”
When it has all been read (mainly in Greek, but also in Latin, Hebrew and other languages) up to five million new words will be added to the current body of classical works. Texts deciphered over the past week will be published next month by the Egypt Exploration Society, which owns the collection after financing its discovery over a century ago.
In the past, substantial difficulties have been encountered in reading and interpreting damaged papyrus on many important projects. The Philodemus project at Herculaneum yielded several hundred rolls of text charred by the volcanic flow of Vesuvius, compressed by the weight of rubble and mud and congealed by water. Now multi-spectral techniques also promise to help retrieve this extensive library of Epicurean philosophy from the first century B.C. Classicists even believe that they are likely to be able to find and decipher lost Christian gospels, which were written at approximately the same time as the New Testament.ARCHIVE: 0th week 2005

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