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Science and Technology

Exploradio - The papyrus window
Kent State students are among a handful of undergrads nationwide given access to ancient papyrus texts from Egypt
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
A fragment of ancient papyrus from the Egyptian city of Oxyrhyncus. Kent State students are translating a similar papyrus text.
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The discovery of a huge stash of papyrus scrolls in the Egyptian desert 100 years ago is gradually adding to our understanding of life in ancient times.  But it’s taken scholars decades to translate the thousands of fragile papyrus texts.

For the first time, a small number of undergraduate students have been enlisted to study the rare finds.

In this week’s Exploradio we decipher the papyrus of Oxyrynchus.

Exploradio - the papyrus window

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The city of long-nosed fish

Beneath the shifting sands of central Egypt, two turn-of-the-century English explorers came across an ancient city dump filled with papyrus writings.   The explorers, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, sent tens of thousands of papyri back to Oxford and spent the rest of their lives translating a fraction of them.  

One un-translated papyrus is now housed at the Kent State University library, where classics professor Jennifer Larson gingerly lifts it.

“Every time we open the box I feel a thrill.”

The papyrus is slightly damaged, but remarkably whole - safely sandwiched in a plexiglass case.  It’s covered with neat rows of mysterious script.

“The big challenge is deciphering the handwriting.”

It’s ancient Greek, written in Roman Egypt.  It’s from the now disappeared city of Oxyrhynchus  -- an agricultural center named after a curious long-nosed Nile fish.  The people of Oxyrhyncus were apparently obsessed with documentation, which Larson says included the occasional housecleaning.

“It sat in someone’s records or storeroom for a long time and eventually it was so old that nobody wanted it anymore, so they took it with a lot of other stacks of papyrus out to the city dump. And that’s where it sat for the next two thousand years.”

Beneath the sands of time

Papyrus texts from Oxyrhyncus were preserved for centuries by the desert dryness.

They include previously unknown writings of the playwrights Menader and Sophocles, early Christian texts, including the Gospel of Thomas, and thousands of bills of sale, contracts, and private letters.

Kent State art major Kayla Zatezalo is one of four undergrads whose task is to translate this particular piece of papyrus. 

“Starting at the beginning it says, ‘year of the fourth of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Sebastian,’ which is a name for Augustus, ‘Germanicus’.  So that means it’s the fourth year of his reign, so that’s 44 A.D.”

Kayla does NOT know Greek, but being an art major helps.

“I’m viewing this more as almost like hieroglyphs, like pictures instead of letters.”

The papyrus is on loan to Larson and her students through the Green Scholars Initiative run by the Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby chain.

As the economic downturn has forced institutions to downsize collections, the Green family has gone on a buying spree of ancient documents. This papyrus was formerly owned by the University of Dayton.   The Green collection is now one of the largest in the world.

Democratization of research 

Baylor University professor Scott Carroll is director of the Green Scholars program. He says the Kent students are among about 200 college students nationwide who will have direct access to rare ancient texts.

“It’s democratization of research of items, of access at many different levels that is what is in view here.”

Although scholars have been aware of this papyrus for years, no one has translated it. 

“These students and their professor will part of a publication of the very highest order in academics in the world in this area.”

Philosophy major Tommy Walsh and the other students are anxious to know what message the document contains from 2,000 years ago.

“We’ve read one line and we’ve got a lot more to go, and the question of what is to follow is keeping all of us on the edge of our seats, I’m sure.”

Jennifer Larson is all encouragement.

“You learn by doing.  So they started this project knowing no Greek at all, and look how well they’re doing already.”

Once translated, the Kent State papyrus will join the thousands of documents recovered from Oxyrhyncus that open a window into a lost people and place.

I’m Jeff St.Clair with this week’s Exploradio.

Related Links & Resources
Green Scholars Initiative website

Oxyrhynchus wikipedia page

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Listener Comments:

Why don't they partner with some of the Classics departments in the region, like CWRU or John Carrol? Surely having some Ancient Greek students helping would be beneficial.

Posted by: Archived (Cleveland) on November 7, 2011 9:11AM
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