Sorting the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

Oxyrhynchus Papyri Pile

Papyri from the excavations of Grenfell and Hunt; image source: Egypt Exploration Society

Again, it would be great to get a systematic account from somebody “in the know” about the unpublished inventory of material from Oxyrhynchus. Hunt, of course, identified some things in the field and then back at Oxford. But it seems like he and Grenfell didn’t themselves have a sense of just how much material they uncovered. In a lecture in 1920, Grenfell wrote that Volume 15 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri series “probably carries us more than half-way through the publication of the total finds of literary texts from that site. With regard to non-literary papyri, however, we are not yet nearly half-way through the publication, and, in fact, with the exception of the 1897 season’s finds, have made comparatively little progress in unrolling them, so that the Oxyrhynchus series is likely to exceed thirty volumes” (“The Present Position of Papyrology,” 149, my emphasis).

Seeing that we are now at Volume 83, it appears Grenfell’s estimate was a bit low. While Hunt and Lobel both pulled selected materials from the overall collection (in a process described here), the first systematic sorting seems to have taken place in the 1960s. I don’t know of any thorough published description of this activity and its results. The initial announcement was made in the preface to volume 33 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri:

“In 1966 the British Academy accepted as one of its major research projects the task of cataloguing and preparing for publication the unedited Greek and Latin papyri in the Oxyrhynchus collection. Its generous support, and the prospect of continuation of that support over a period of years, has made it possible to set additional technicians and staff to work on the physical preparation of the material, on the compilation of an inventory of the damped-out papyri, and the formation of a corpus of photographs of them. This work is being done under the supervision of a committee of the British Academy, which has made it its business to combine effectively the resources of the Academy and the very considerable technical help and facilities offered in London by University College and in Oxford by the Ashmolean Museum (through the Grenfell and Hunt library) and the Faculty Board of Literae Humaniores. The Egypt Exploration Society will continue to bear the cost of and take scholarly responsibility for publication. Its general editors hope to be able to recruit additional scholars for the exacting task of editing papyri, a burden which Mr. Lobel has borne too long alone.”

And here is what Peter Parsons says in his excellent book, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish (2007):

When I returned to Oxford in 1960 I found myself teaching documentary papyrology and deciphering unpublished papyri from the Oxyrhynchos collection. This research was by then (as it remains) a team effort, under the direction of Eric Turner, Professor of Papyrology at University College London, whose organising genius gave the enterprise a more formal shape, along with institutional premises (in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and the funds (from the British Academy) to appoint a curator of the rehoused collection and to carry through the first systematic cataloguing. In Oxford I had the privilege of working along-side two colleagues of extraordinary accomplishment, John Rea and Revel Coles. The Egypt Exploration Society, which had funded the original excavation, continued (and continues) to publish our results in yearly volumes of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri.”

But if this preliminary sorting was already underway in the 1960s, and there were already the kinds of results that have been published in West’s studies on the Iliad (outlined here; also see in the comments), then one wonders what was going on in 2011 when the so-called “Ancient Lives Project,” was launched with so much media fanfare? The project to “crowd source” the identification of the Oxyrhynchus papyri was announced in the following way:

“The ANCIENT LIVES project mounts images of Greek papyri fragments online and asks volunteers to participate in the work on them. Many of these papyri have remained unstudied since they were discovered more than a century ago. You can help expedite the process of transcription and cataloguing. Our goal is to increase the momentum by which scholars have traditionally identified known and unknown literary texts, and the private documents and letters from Graeco-Roman Egypt. No one pair of eyes can see and read everything. Your results will be tabulated with those of thousands of others’ contribution to the same effort.”

I spent a good bit of time on the site when it first launched a few years ago, but I found that most of the pictures online were simply relatively low quality images of pieces that were already published, pictures of blank papyrus, and pictures with no papyrus at all, just rulers and dust. The site went down for several months, but it recently relaunched at and seems to involve more collections beyond the Oxyrhynchus material now. From a quick perusal, it looks like there are actually unidentified pieces on the site now. Check it out; it’s worth a look.


Grenfell, Bernard P. “The Present Position of Papyrology.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 6 (1920), 142–162

Parsons, Peter J. City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007

Turner, Eric G. “The Graeco-Roman Branch.” Pages 161–178 in James, T. G. H. (ed.) Excavating in Egypt: The Egypt Exploration Society, 1882–1982. British Museum, 1982.



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8 Responses to Sorting the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

  1. Geoff Hudson says:

    Brent, it looks like the “dump” was not a dump at all. All these fragments appear to have been ripped up by people who wanted rid of them.

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  4. ikokki says:

    Grenfell and Hunt brought back from Egypt some 500,000 fragments per their description, which are still being catalogued so they could turn out to be more. Assuming 10 fragments per published papyrus this would mean some 50,000 papyri in there. Volume 83’s greatest number is what, 5400? There is also a volume of astronomical papyri published that has several a and b numbers because they did not reserve enough numbers when publishing and also at some point the University of Helsinki published a volume of Oxyrhynchus Papyri with its own enumeration but still, as a learned amateur I would guess only 10% or so of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri have been published. Back in the summer of 2009 there was a presentation in the British Library about the new volume then published and a workshop. I was there and I did ask that if you have published some 10% in the 110 years, how are you ensuring that they all will be published before the papyri degrade? The answer I got was about preservation mostly, they did not doubt that only 10% or so has been published

  5. “I found that most of the pictures online were simply relatively low quality images of pieces that were already published, pictures of blank papyrus, and pictures with no papyrus at all”

    For this kind of project I think it’s important to include known texts and blanks to be able to assess the quality and competence of amateur transcribers. If an individual don’t agree with the generally accepted transcription of a known text, their opinion on unknown texts should probably be downweighted.

    • Yes, what you say makes sense. But the ratio of photos of already-published pieces and “junk” photos to genuinely unknown pieces was ridiculously high. I’m told this has changed with the newer incarnation of the project.

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