Monday, April 18, 2005

Egypt Exploration Society

Language Hat posted a link to an intriguing article on Oxford scientists employing infra-red technology to find long-lost Greek and Roman plays and histories and poetry on a hoard of ancient papyrus thrown onto an ancient garbage heap, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Oxyrhynchus ("city of the sharp-nosed fish") was the "titular archdiocese of Heptanomos in Egypt", and its inhabitants were among the earliest to embrace Christianity, so there may be some early Christian documents in there too. The collection already yielded some precious documents in 1906: the Catholic Encyclopedia cites an article dating to that year titled "Les plus anciens monuments du christianisme ecrit sur papyrus".

The Telegraph article says the hoard is owned by the Egypt Exploration Society. That name rang a bell with me, and a quick look at my collection told me why: one of my favourite books, Nefertiti Lived Here, was written by Mary Chubb, who was employed by the EES in the 1930s. She volunteered to go on a season's dig at Tell El-Amarna sponsored by the society, led by the brilliant John Pendlebury, and one of the results was this lovely book. It conveys a sense of the romance of archaeology, but doesn't hesitate to point out the hardships and the disappointments as well. Reading the second-last chapter, about an ancient Egyptian folk dance, still sends a thrill down my spine - you'll have to read it to see why. Amazingly, fieldwork is still on-going at Amarna, still sponsored by the EES.

But these new techniques really go to show that it's really not all that easy to destroy information, doesn't it?* For hundreds of years those papyri have been unreadable. To all intents and purposes, they held no further information. And then people come up with a subtle, sophisticated way of teasing out information from what's left. Absolutely amazing.

*I suppose paper shredders and card shufflers and hard disk rewriters already know this, though.

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