In January 1897, British archaeology students Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt dug into what they thought was a simple sand dune at the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, about 200 km south of Cairo.
Pretty soon they realised there was nothing simple about what they were excavating - they’d uncovered an ancient rubbish dump, from which more than 500,000 fragments of Egyptian papyrus were eventually extracted. But the problem with finding so many documents is that someone actually has to read them all.
Between 1898 and 2012, academics managed to transcribe just over 5,000 of the 500,000 documents that are now housed by the Sackler Library in Oxford and owned by the Egypt Exploration Society in London. That means it took them more than a century to transcribe 1 percent of the documents.
Realising they needed some serious help, a team led by Dirk Obbink from Oxford University in the UK recruited more than 250,000 volunteers who were willing to learn the ancient Greek alphabet and decipher the texts online. Now, they’re making their way through hundreds of thousands of them.
"By allowing public access to one of the largest unfinished archaeological projects in the world, we have been able to move beyond one scholar with a papyrus and a magnifying glass, to transcribe between 100,000 and 200,000 more texts - some of which had been partially eaten by worms, or used to wrap fish, or worse," Obbink told Adam Lusher at The Independent.
Launched in 2014, the Ancient Lives Project gives anyone with a basic understanding of the ancient Greek alphabet the opportunity to access these texts online and try deciphering them. The transcripts are then cross-checked using software that draws data from existing texts and transcripts to verify the translation.
"Even school children who have simply been taught the letters of the Greek alphabet can do it," Obbink told The Australian.
The most recent results of the Ancient Lives Project have finally been revealed, with Obbink and his colleagues discussing the transcriptions at the World Monuments Fund meeting in London this week. And the collection of texts that several civilisations spanning thousands of years threw into that rubbish dump is anything but dull.
"The finds ... range from official documents - a 3rd Century doctor’s official report on the 'twisted and lifeless body' of a drowned slave girl - to the literary, including an extract from Andromeda, a lost tragedy written by Euripides and thought to have been first produced in 417 BC," Lusher reports for The Independent.
"That was like finding a new speech in a play by Shakespeare," Obbink told him. "It’s amazing what gets thrown out in the rubbish."
The texts, which have mainly been dated from the 1st Century BC to the 7th Century AD, include ancient plays, poems, forensic reports, and shopping lists, plus the earliest example of match-fixing ever found, and an updated version of a Biblical story.
"Another fragment studied in 2011 revealed a lost gospel that features an early version of a story about Jesus casting out demons from possessed men. The story appears in the gospels of Luke (viii, 26-33) and Matthew (viii, 28-32), both of which were written down later, but their versions include an additional detail about the demons being transferred into pigs, which then drowned themselves in a nearby lake."
"It suggests that some of the later stories in the Bible were expanded or embellished," Obbink notes.
Some 24 medical texts have also been transcribed so far - including an ancient hangover cure that was published late last year.
The project is still well and truly underway, and new volunteers are always welcome, so get that ancient Greek alphabet knowledge under your belt and sign up here. You can also read some of the transcripts here.
It’s pretty freaking cool to think that you could be reading something no one else has looked at for thousands of years from the comfort of your laptop. Btw if you find any treasure maps, just send them our way first so we can... erm... check them for mistakes...