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Up From the Dump

The late Carl Sagan, musing on the twilight of the ancient world after the murder of the pagan philosopher Hypatia in 415CE:

The glory of the Alexandrian Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia’s death. It was as if the entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of the works that were destroyed. In most cases, we know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Cariolanus and  A Winter’s Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet.”

Well, here’s some consolation at last, via 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 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.

…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”.

Works by Sophocles, Euripides and Hesiod have been recovered, and there is the inevitable speculation about “lost Gospels” popping up. However, Oxford University’s Oxrhynchus Papyri Project (unhappily called “POxy” for short) site does not yet appear to have been updated to reflect the breakthrough.

(Tipped from The Light of Reason)

UPDATE: Rogue Classicism has a less-dramatic account of the new discoveries; it seems our Independent hack may have got carried away a bit.

UPDATE 2: The New York Times has a piece on the subject by Sarah Lyall, and suggests that the Independent over-hyped the story.

3 Responses

  1. Great site! Thanks for posting this.

  2. Timing is everything: I began going through the P.Oxy collection a few weeks ago. If APIS is kept up-to-date, I may end up with a lot more information than I dared hope. Thanks for posting this!

  3. I’m still planning on learning Latin.

    I’m sure I have 100 words now, not many, but I’m still working.

    Non mi placent, O Pincerna, Virent Ova. Viret perna.

    (That does not please me, O servant Green Eggs, Green Ham)

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