I recently joined the ancientlives.org papyrology project, which is a mind-blowingly awesome thing to be a part of. And as I want to focus on papyrology for my graduate studies, it’s all the more interesting.
It’s a collaboration between Oxford, several papyrological institutes, an Egyptian institute, and more, and the purpose is to transcribe thousands of papyri that have been scanned online. The papyri were found in the late 1890s at the site of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (the name means “The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish”). They are written about anything, from texts as mundane as ancient grocery lists to things like copies of the Gospels and Thucydides and Plato – and everything in between.
For those that may not be too familiar with papyri, here’s a little info on what they are. Papyri are made from the papyrus plant, a common plant that grows in Egypt. Both sides of the papyrus paper could be written on, but most of the time scribes just wrote on one side. Most of the texts are written in ancient Greek, some written by professional scribes and some by average-Joe citizens. Some are written in Coptic, which is the ancient indigenous language of the area they were found in. They are an invaluable tool in finding out not only the legal records and famous books of the classical period, but also in figuring out how words were pronounced – sometimes people leaved out letters of words, which sometimes happened on purpose and not just as a spelling error, which gives modern scholars a clue into the ancient phonetics.
What the people behind the ancientlives.org website want help with is transcribing these documents: figuring out which letter is an alpha, a beta, a gamma, etc., to make things easier on the professional papyrologists – there are an estimated 500,000 documents, and only a small fraction have been officially worked on.
Now, this isn’t as easy as it sounds – just like in today’s world, some people back then had atrocious handwriting. Sometimes an alpha will look like a delta, or a sigma (at the end of a word) like an omicron, and so on. To make matters worse, the papyri are deteriorating, and so there are large holes in some areas and the texts are sometimes too worn to make anything out in other areas.
If you’ve had any experience with Greek – whether it’s ancient or modern – and this sounds interesting, then help out! Although it can be a bit tedious, it’s really a fun project, and the feeling you get when you recognize a word (or see the name of the person who wrote the document) is very rewarding.