Ancient Egypt

Oxyrhynchus: Uncovering History in Trash

In the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, uncovered a wealth of papyri, including both secular and sacred texts dating back centuries.

Oxyrhynchus Uncovering History in Trash 2

When we think of ancient artifacts, we often think of cherished objects. However, to truly understand daily life in antiquity, one should explore discarded items. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri is a significant example of this. This collection consists of over half a million fragments of texts found in ancient Egyptian rubbish dumps towards the end of the 19th century. These discoveries range from food orders to sacred scriptures, providing insights into surprising aspects of ancient life.

The Ancient City of Oxyrhynchus 

Located on the bank of the Bahr Yussef in Egypt’s Western Desert, the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus, once known as Per-Medjed, was the capital of the 19th Upper Egyptian nome. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE, Greek citizens inhabited the city and renamed it Oxyrhynchou polis, meaning “City of the Sharpsnouted Fish.”

Map of Egypt with Oxyrhynchus highlighted, Source: University of Oxford
Map of Egypt with Oxyrhynchus highlighted, Source: University of Oxford

Throughout the Ptolemaic era and Roman rule, the city thrived as a regional capital. It boasted amenities such as a grand theatre, public baths, a gymnasium, and temples dedicated to deities like the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. Surrounded by fertile farmland irrigated by the Nile’s annual floods, Oxyrhynchus also gained prominence for its numerous churches and monasteries as Christianity spread across the region in the 1st century CE.

During the Byzantine and Arab periods, Oxyrhynchus experienced a decline and eventually fell into ruin, with most of its structures being built over to create the modern village of elBahnasa. However, the city’s glory days were not entirely in the past. In the late 1890s, during the British occupation of Ottoman Egypt, two young archaeologists, Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt from The Queen’s College, Oxford, made a groundbreaking discovery that brought Oxyrhynchus back into the spotlight as one of the most significant historical sites.

The Excavators: Dreaming of Papyri

Grenfell and Hunt, supported by the Greco-Roman branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund, had a vision of uncovering lost Greek masterpieces at Oxyrhynchus. Grenfell believed the city was a promising location for Greek manuscripts due to its history as a capital city where wealthy individuals likely maintained libraries of literary texts. They also anticipated finding early Christian literature due to the presence of numerous churches and monasteries at the site.

Bernard Grenfell (right) and Arthur Hunt (left), 1896, Source: The University of Oxford
Bernard Grenfell (right) and Arthur Hunt (left), 1896, Source: The University of Oxford

Upon their arrival at Oxyrhynchus in 1896, Grenfell and Hunt found the site less promising than expected. The town’s structures were poorly preserved, with most buildings reduced to foundations that seemed unlikely to yield valuable discoveries. Their hopes turned to the Greco-Roman cemetery west of the town, where exceptional Greek literary rolls had previously been found buried with their owners. Unfortunately, the excavation of the cemetery did not meet their expectations.

Rubbish Mounds at Oxyrhynchus, Source: University of Oxford
Rubbish Mounds at Oxyrhynchus, Source: University of Oxford

The excavation at Oxyrhynchus involved digging into the rubbish mounds outside the town where ancient residents disposed of their trash. Despite being intentionally discarded, the findings in these mounds turned out to be more significant than expected.

The Excavation: A Torrent of Papyri

Grenfell and Hunt directed local workers to dig trenches in the rubbish mounds, leading to a remarkable discovery of papyri. The sheer volume of papyri uncovered was overwhelming, with two men tasked with creating metal tins to store the fragments. Over ten weeks, the workers struggled to keep up with the number of papyri found.

The dry climate of the region, coupled with the extensive dumping of materials over time, resulted in the exceptional preservation of ancient papyrus. Between 1896 and 1907, Grenfell and Hunt unearthed approximately half a million papyrus fragments, ranging from small pieces to complete rolls. The collection includes writings in Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Arabic, making it the largest assortment of ancient papyri in the contemporary world.

The literary significance of the findings is immense, with texts like Menander’s “Misoumenos” from the 3rd century CE among the discoveries.

The Literary 

P. Oxy. 3368: Menander, Misoumenos, 3rd century CE, Source: University of Oxford
P. Oxy. 3368: Menander, Misoumenos, 3rd century CE, Source: University of Oxford

Grenfell and Hunt successfully achieved their goal of discovering significant masterpieces of Greek literature at Oxyrhynchus. The literary papyri found, which make up a small portion of the collection, include well-known Greek classics and some previously lost works by ancient poets, mathematicians, historians, and dramatists like Homer, Plato, and Aristotle. The excavations also unveiled unknown texts lost in the Middle Ages and expanded versions of existing works, such as comedies by Menander, poetry by Sappho, and diagrams by Euclid.

The Theological 

The site also yielded numerous theological texts, including fragments from the Septuagint, the New Testament, and apocryphal texts. These discoveries have significantly impacted New Testament and early Christian studies, providing insight into early Christian texts and ancient scriptural traditions.

P.Oxy X 1229: James 1:15-18, 3rd century CE, Source: Spurlock Museum
P.Oxy X 1229: James 1:15-18, 3rd century CE, Source: Spurlock Museum

Among the findings were fragments from a book containing sayings of Jesus, some previously unknown. The collection includes fragments from the four canonical gospels of the New Testament, as well as extracanonical texts like the Gospel of Thomas, Acts of Peter, Acts of Paul and Thecla, and The Shepherd of Hermas. Additionally, there are various other Christian materials like prayers, amulets, and letters.

In addition to literary and theological texts, non-literary items were also discovered at Oxyrhynchus, such as an announcement of tax delinquents from the 3rd century CE.

The Non-Literary 

The majority of surviving texts from ancient times are typically impressive works like those Grenfell and Hunt were searching for at Oxyrhynchus. These include popular literature, scriptures, and accounts of powerful individuals that were frequently copied or intentionally preserved over time. However, what sets the Oxyrhynchus Papyri apart is its unique collection primarily consisting of nonliterary documents that detail the everyday affairs of regular people.

P.Oxy VI 890: Announcement of Tax Delinquents, 3rd century CE, Source: Spurlock Museum
P.Oxy VI 890: Announcement of Tax Delinquents, 3rd century CE, Source: Spurlock Museum

The nonliterary items unearthed at the site encompass a wide range of document types from both public and private spheres throughout the centuries. These include receipts, registrations, orders, disputes, wills, personal letters, school exercises, horoscopes, and more. Grenfell noted certain mounds where a large quantity of papyri was found, indicating that parts of the local archives may have been discarded in bulk. These documents offer scholars a detailed insight into the ancient city, covering everything from governmental structures to the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

Government documents like edicts, court orders, and tax records provide crucial information about the political and economic landscape of the region. On the other hand, private correspondences such as letters and invitations offer a glimpse into the social activities at Oxyrhynchus. For instance, an invitation from the 2nd or 3rd century CE invites someone to dine at a banquet, showcasing the social interactions of the time. While these nonliterary documents may not be as flashy as literary or theological texts, they are equally significant for understanding the ancient world.

The discovery and publication of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri in 1898 marked a valuable contribution to the study of antiquity, shedding light on the daily lives and societal structures of an ancient city through seemingly mundane documents.

Impact: The Value of Garbage

The initial publications of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri by Grenfell and Hunt in 1898 marked the beginning of ongoing efforts to uncover, analyze, and publish fragments found at the site. The papyri were originally distributed by the Egypt Exploration Fund, now known as the Egypt Exploration Society, with much of the collection currently housed in Oxford’s Art, Archaeology, and Ancient World Library.

Recent scholarship on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri represents a significant shift in the fields of Classics and New Testament studies. Scholars are reevaluating traditional practices that favored certain texts based on their modern cultural or religious significance. The discovery that sacred texts and revered classics were discarded alongside mundane documents like agricultural records prompts reflection on the value assigned to ancient texts.

By contextualizing esteemed historical works within a refuse site, researchers can approach ancient texts without bias towards those deemed more influential or sacred in contemporary times. For instance, scholars like AnneMarie Luijendijk, a specialist in New Testament studies and papyrology, focus on the neglect and destruction of Christian manuscripts at Oxyrhynchus, referred to as “the death of the codex.” This vast collection of papyri offers new avenues for exploration, revealing both hidden treasures among discarded materials and the less glamorous aspects of revered ancient texts.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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