Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Historical Treasure in Ancient Egyptian Garbage

Amidst the arid ruins of an ancient Egyptian city called Oxyrhynchus, Oxford researchers Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt discovered hundreds of thousands of fragments of papyrus beginning in 1897. These paper fragments, made from Egyptian reed plants, lay hidden away in landfills of garbage buried under the desert sands for well over a millennium. Lost works of literature and nearly half the Christian papyrus texts in existence are among the wide array of documents. The Oxyrhynchus papyri, dating from the 3rd century BCE to the 7th century CE, are the most significant deposit of ancient writings ever found.

Oxyrhynchus Papyri Hercles manuscript.

An Oxyrhynchus papyrus fragment of a poem about the Labors of Heracles. 3rd century. Public domain.

So old are the Oxyrhynchus papyri that many of the original documents and scrolls have literally crumbled into tiny pieces of paper. Thus, scholars have had to painstakingly piece together the fragments into decipherable texts and have completed about 5,000 papyrus documents so far. However, there are still about 500,000 more to go. This monumental task may take many years into the future, but it is an important work that is much more significant than the historical documents themselves. The Oxyrhynchus papyri are also giving us deep insights into the culture of civilizations that have long since passed.

The History of Oxyrhynchus

The city of Oxyrhynchus was once a small Egyptian town called Per-Medjed. The name derives from the long-nosed Medjed fish that ancient Egyptians worshipped as a god who legendarily ate the penis of Osiris. Because this god was so important, they named a town after him. However, after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 323 BCE, there was a large influx of Greeks into Egypt. The new settlers subsequently took over Per-Medjed and reestablished it as Oxyrrhynkhoupolis, meaning “town of the sharp-snouted fish” in Greek. Additionally, they adopted the fish-god alongside their own Greek pantheon of gods.

See also: Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies

egyptian oxyrhynchus fish

Bronze amulet of the venerated Egyptian Medjed fish. 664-30 BCE. Public Domain.

Located in the Fayum Basin on the Bahr Yusuf branch of the main Upper Nile river, about 250 miles south of Alexandria, Oxyrhynchus was once the third largest city in Egypt. It also served as a regional capital from about 320 BCE to 30 BCE during the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty. Partial excavations reveal the prior existence of Corinthian-columned stoae (covered walkways) that surrounded a large agora (marketplace). There was also a theater that sat 11,000 people and a temple dedicated to the god Serapis. On the waterway, there were docks for loading and unloading boats. Just outside the city, large mounds of trash, including papyri, piled up for roughly a thousand years until the Arab invasion in the 7th century CE.

Digging Oxyrhynchus Papyri

The garbage mounds of Oxyrhynchus kept their contents well-hidden and preserved until the 19th century when the locals of the region found and sold some papyrus fragments in the artifacts market. Some of those pieces made their way to western museums where they drew the attention of a number of scholars and explorers who were eager to find Egyptian treasures of all sorts. The Egypt Exploration Society of London funded an expedition led by two British graduate students from Oxford. Bernard Grenfell was an Egyptologist, and Arthur Hunt was a papyrologist. In 1896, the men headed to Oxyrhynchus and little did they know that they would spend the rest of their lives recovering, piecing together, and deciphering ancient documents and literature.

Oxyrhynchus papyri archaeologists

Papyrus experts Bernard Grenfell (L) and Arthur Hunt (R). Public domain.

Each winter, Grenfell and Hunt worked together with hundreds of workers on the Oxyrhynchus project. Deep within the mounds, one team shoveled dirt and sand to be carried out. Another team took the dirt to another location where varying sizes of papyrus fragments, often the size of a dime or smaller, were meticulously picked out and placed into baskets. In the evenings, Grenfell and Hunt carefully sorted the pieces and organized them into tins. Then they shipped the tins of papyri to Oxford for storage, classification, and translation. The winter of 1896/’97 marked Grenfell and Hunt’s first major find, and each subsequent winter brought more and more incredible papyri.

Discoveries

The city of Oxyrhynchus was an important center of government, academic, and religious activity. Scribes and citizens documented virtually everything: government and politics, religion/scriptures, commercial and social activities, academia (medicine, astronomy/astrology, mathematics, literature), legal proceedings, marriages, injuries, disputes, and even mundane happenings.

Because papyrus was expensive in Egypt, both the back and front were typically written on. One side may have contained notations or receipts of commercial transactions while the other side may contain elegiac poetry or lines of the Iliad.

Most of the Oxyrhynchus papyri are in Greek, but some are in Egyptian (mostly Coptic), Latin, Arabic, and fewer works are in Hebrew and Aramaic. Only about ten percent are of a literary nature, and many of those works are epitomes of originals or copies of other copies. Although the majority of the literary findings exist in other works, some are completely original and not found anyplace else.

Oxyrhynchus has so far yielded roughly half of the oldest New Testament papyri, as well as texts of classical authors such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the plays of Euripides, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Euclid’s Elements, and other important Greek and Latin authors.

Thomas A. Wayment, BYU

The following lists expand on select Oxyrhynchus papyri:

Literature

  • Works of Sappho. Grenfell and Hunt found least six papyri containing around eight poems of the 7th century BCE poet, Sappho of Lesbos. Since then, other Sappho pieces have been found and published. (Grenfell & Hunt: v.15:26, v.1:37).
  • Iliad & Odyssey by Homer. A number of passages of the Iliad turned up on fragments dating from the 1st century CE to the 6th or 7th century CE. An Odyssey fragment dates to the 3rd century CE. (Grenfell & Hunt: vol.1–15).
oxyrhynchus papyri Homer's Iliad

Homer’s Iliad Book II, 2nd century CE, author unknown. Public domain.

  • Virgil’s Aeneid. Two fragments of the first book of Aeneid (30 BCE-20 BCE) in Latin date back to the 4th or 5th century CE. (Grenfell & Hunt: vol.1:60 & vol.8:158). A vellum fragment of Aeneid Book II was also found (Grenfell & Hunt: vol.8:158).

History Records

  • Constitution of the Athenians. Author: originally Aristotle or one of his students from the 4th century BCE. This was a previously lost work. Two leaves of it came from Oxyrhynchus and, in its full form, is a monumental work that discusses the political system of Ancient Athens. Date of papyrus: 1st century CE.
  • On Alexander the Great. Author: unknown. Lengthy treatise detailing the period of the Battle of Granicus. Scholars debate the source of this unique work. Date of papyrus: middle or late 2nd century CE. (Grenfell & Hunt: vol.15:122).

Mythology/Astrology

  • Fragment on Narcissus. Author: unknown, but some scholars suggest the work derives from Metamorphoses by the Greek poet Parthenius of Nicaea who lived in the 1st century BCE. This may be the oldest version of the Narcissus myth. Date of papyrus: 6th century CE. (The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol.69). For a transcription of this fragment see The Narcissus Myth: Early Poets and Versions.
  • Egyptian Astrological Calendar. Author: unknown. This is a fascinating discovery with a rare peek into the world of ancient Egyptian astrology. The piece explains the relationship between the time of the month (astronomical position of planets and stars) and the constellation, the name and description (part human/part animal) of the god or goddess that presides over each constellation, good and bad omens, and influences on health. (Grenfell & Hunt: vol.3:126).

Religion

  • The Logia. Grenfell and Hunt found the first group of Sayings of Jesus in 1897 and called them the Logia (sayings). Scholars estimate they were “probably written not much later than the year 200,” but the sayings derive from the 2nd century or earlier. The Logia contains eight statements beginning with “Jesus says” and continues with a saying. An excerpt of Logion II follows:

“Jesus saith, Except ye fast to the world, ye shall in no wise find the kingdom of God; and except ye make the Sabbath a real Sabbath, ye shall not see the Father” (Grenfell & Hunt: vol.1:29).

  • New Sayings of Jesus. In 1903, Grenfell and Hunt found another papyrus with more sayings of Jesus. These five New Sayings are different from the first group and also contain an introduction. The writing derives from the middle to late 3rd century. An excerpt of the First Saying follows (ellipses indicate unknown or broken text):

“Jesus saith, Let not him who seeks . . . cease until he finds, and when he finds he shall be astonished; astonished he shall reach the kingdom, and having reached the kingdom he shall rest” (Grenfell & Hunt: vol.4:20).

  • Fragment of a Lost Gospel of Jesus. The scholars found a scroll with eight fragments of papyrus that date to no later than 250 CE. An excerpt of the Gospel follows (with expert restorations where words were missing):

“(Take no thought) from morning until even not from evening until morning, either for your food what ye shall eat or for your raiment what ye shall put on. Ye are far better than the lilies which grow but spin not. Having one garment, what do ye (lack?) . . . Who could add to your stature? He himself will give you your garment” (Grenfell & Hunt: vol.4:22).

A Fragment of a Lost Gospel

oxyrhynchus papryi fragment of a lost gospel

Fragment of “A Lost Gospel,” written sometime before 250 CE. Author unknown. Public domain.

Publications of Works

In 1898, less than 11 months after Grenfell and Hunt’s first Oxyrhynchus discovery, the team released their first publication of 158 Oxyrhynchus papyri out of about twelve or thirteen hundred documents. They had to leave some texts for later, as they were too fragmentary or complex. In total, the two scholars published about 15 volumes of their findings. Following their deaths, other scholars carried on their work, and, thus, today there are roughly 80 large volumes in existence.

However, the work is not done, and with modern imaging technology, experts are able to see texts that have become so faded as to render them virtually invisible . . . until now. Hence, the work of piecing together and transcribing the Oxyrhynchus papyri continues to this day, and many more volumes are expected to come of it.

Additional references:
Grenfell, Bernard P., and Arthur S. Hunt. 1898. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: vols. 1-15 at archive.org.
Schironi, FrancescaFrom Alexandria to Babylon: Near Eastern languages and Hellenistic Erudition in the Oxyrhynchus Glossary (P. Oxy. 1802 4812), p. 59. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009.
P.Oxy Oxyrhynchus Online.
BYU Religious Studies Center. Wayment, Thomas A. 2008.

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Kimberly Lin

Kimberly's number one passion is bringing history to the world, and she has written for various websites since 2011. She spent several years living in Italy and her travels in Europe and Asia have given her a keen interest in archaeology, world history, and culture. Cooking and running in the sand with her beloved mutt are among her favorite pastimes.

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