Monday, April 25, 2005

Classical Treasures Recovered?

Found via Dr. Sanity, this incredible news from the Independent:
For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in equal measure - a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it could redraw the map of classical civilisation. If only it was legible.

Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.

In the past four days alone, Oxford's classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament.

The original papyrus documents, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump in central Egypt, are often meaningless to the naked eye - decayed, worm-eaten and blackened by the passage of time. But scientists using the new photographic technique, developed from satellite imaging, are bringing the original writing back into view. Academics have hailed it as a development which could lead to a 20 per cent increase in the number of great Greek and Roman works in existence. Some are even predicting a "second Renaissance".
Some think this is undue hype; as this site was not a literary center as many already-translated manuscripts indicate.
The focus of the project is now mainly on the publication of this vast archive of material: by 2003 4,700 items had been translated, edited and published. Publication continues at the rate of about one new volume each year. Each volume contains a selection of material, covering a wide range of subjects. The editors include senior professionals but also students studying papyrology at the doctoral or undergraduate level. Thus recent volumes offer early fragments of the Gospels and of the Book of Revelation, early witnesses to the texts of Apollonius Rhodius, Aristophanes, Demosthenes, and Euripides, previously unknown texts of Simonides and Menander and of the epigrammatist Nicarchus. Other subjects covered include specimens of Greek music and documents relating to magic and astrology.

In April 2005, Oxford University announced that its joint project with Brigham Young University using infrared technology developed from satellite imaging has been extremely successful in recovering much of the missing or damaged script, including previously unknown works of Sophocles, Lucian, Euripides, Parthenius, Hesiod, and Archilochus. The news led to great excitement, with many hailing the finds as a "classical holy grail" and wildly speculating on the possibility of new classics sparking a "second Renaissance."

The amount to be deciphered by this technique is potentially huge: what has already been read is a very small fraction of the number of hitherto unreadable fragments, and scholars have talked of a possible 20 percent increase in our number of Classical texts.

The initial excitement was followed by a more sober assessment of the original article. Individuals involved with the papyrology discussion list PAPY-list expressed scepticism at the relevance of it saying that "at the worst, they're trying to make a major story out of 20-year-old news."
But who knows what will be revealed?


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