Archive | October 2011

Disappearing images

You might notice that images to some of the papyri you’ve already classified have disappeared. We’ve removed them following a request from the Egypt Exploration Society, who own the Oxyrhynchus collection of papyri. I’ll be meeting them and we hope to bring the images back soon, but in the meantime don’t worry – your hard work is safe and we’re working hard to analyse the more than 5 million classifications you’ve already provided which are of immense value.

In the meantime, there are still images to be classified so keep up the good work.

Chris and the AncientLives team.

Literary VS Documentary Papyri

Dear steadfast, indefatigable web users,

back to the blog after an intense week full of new identifications and suggestions. A special thanks goes to all of those users that left a comment (or a question) in the Talk site during this last week: alias2,  Tejas_0,  lmct,  Mgt, sftommy, jansenniek, paratsoukli, lindanewman, mpvgl, Demon22, Ran-chan, foolover12, Noumenon, churrisstina,  dcardani, gsilsby, gud, anagnostes, bumblebee2,  pscofield, ddanbeck.

Today’s post is dedicated to the primary distinction between  Literary and Documentary papyri. Understanding this main difference will greatly benefit your transcriptions and identification skills, making you more aware of the nature of the text you are dealing with.  The entirety of papyri on Ancient Lives can be divided in two main categories: the ones which transmit literary compositions and the ones which do not.

In every papyrus collection documentary papyri constitute the great majority. They consist of private documents and official correspondence. Private papyri include wills, contracts, receipts, letters,  petitions, tax accounts and numerous other written  expressions of daily life in Graeco-Roman Egypt between 3rd century BC and 7th century AD.  Documents can be slowly or rapidly written, by professional scribes or inexperienced persons.

A text written by an inexperienced hand may contain orthographic mistakes, which often affect the readability of the text itself. It is not unusual to find cases of phonetic spellings, the scribe transcribing a word the way that it sounded when spoken. In SB V 7572, a papyrus from Philadelphia from the early 2nd century,  Thermoutas, who is greeting her mother and wishing here continued good health, makes as many as 5 spelling “mistakes” in just one line,  writing  plista cherin ke dia pantes hygenin  instead of pleista chairein kai dia pantos hygiainein.  Consider that the editors of such texts usually print the “correct” reading,  registering the misspelled rendering in a critical apparatus.

Documentary hands are often cursively written , and, consequently, not very easy to decipher. In documentary papyri we see professional scribes clearly avoiding to lift their pen until the word is complete.  Letter-joins are called ligatures.  Documentary scripts may be slanting to the right and include abbreviations of words frequently used, such as para “from”, cheirographon “in my own hand”, krithes “of barley”, grammateus “scribe”. Personal names are also commonly abbreviated.  Other extremely frequent words such as etos “year” and drachmai may be replaced by symbols in their entirety.

Literary texts, which may also show cursive or semicursive features, are mostly written in capitals.  Letters, which are not divided into words,  may be written  as though bounded between  two parallel lines determining their height. We call this quality “bilinearity”. Bilinear, slowly written  handwritings are called “book hands”. Such hands, which can be categorized  into several different styles, are usually very impersonal, and thus difficult to date on mere paleographical grounds.

I hope this has been of some help. Next time I will try to go through the different categories of literary scripts. Have a good week ! And enjoy Ancient Lives.

How to identify a papyrus fragment

Dear Ancient Lives web users,

we have come to the end of an exciting week. Your comments and transcriptions (at whatever  stage of completeness)  have drawn  our attention to papyri later identified as unpublished texts. Newly identified texts fall into the following three major categories: new papyri transmitting known literary compositions; additional fragments belonging to already published literary papyri; previously unknown literary texts. As for documentary texts, we could identify, among others, half a dozen previously unknown private Greek letters. All these texts will be thoroughly analyzed by our teams of experts, who will verify the preliminary information collected. To us, this is like starting a new archaeological season, which can potentially bring to light yet unexplored aspects of the Graeco-Roman civilization.

As you may know,  you too can actively contribute to the process of textual identification, while testing your papyrological skills. Go to, and choose which papyrus you would like to start with.  Try to single out any consecutive letters forming an intelligible Greek word,  then click on each of them using the onscreen keyboard. Bear in mind that most ancient documents have no separation of words, so a sequence of letters can hide multiple possibilities. Double checking the letters preceding and following that word will help you exclude misleading combinations (and save you significant frustration. For example, the Greek adverb  mega, “greatly”, may turn out to be the combination of a beginning and an ending syllable belonging to two separate words: e-me and ga-r “me, in fact”). Finally, remember to save the information you are working on, by clicking on “save now” on the top right corner of the panel (the system will do it for you after 20 seconds of inactivity).

You can now proceed  to browse through the occurrences  of that specific word in the databases provided by the website, a database of the Ancient Greek literature and a substantial collection of documentary text editions. The “Match” button will indicate which passages (if any) match the sequence of letters that you have indicated. As pointed out by some of you, this command is particularly effective in cases of short sequences of letters, but may not always give you the desired results, so please take a moment to make sure that your choice entirely overlaps the text you are transcribing. If it does, go to the Oxyrhynchus Papyri website ( and search the papyrus by entering the name of the author of that particular text (for example “Aeschylus”) or the papyrus editorial title (“Commentary to Alcaeus”). You will be given a list of Oxyrhynchus Papyri potentially matching your exemplar. Once you have found it, you can post a comment in the “Talk” section, informing the community of your successful identification.

I hope I have been of some help. For further information please contact  James Brusuelas (Recipient’s name “Jbrusuel”) or myself  (“Perale”) through the Ancient Lives website ( We thank you again for your help and support.

Our team, our goals

Hi everybody. My name is Marco Perale, I am a Research Associate in Papyrology at the University of Minnesota, and part of the Ancient Lives Project. As some of you may already know (by going through my tedious posts in the Talk section of the Ancient Lives website), I supervise transcriptions and comments made by online users. From today onwards, my colleagues and I will take care of this blog, keeping you posted and updated. Ancient Lives is a project coordinated by Dirk Obbink, University Lecturer in Papyrology at the University of Oxford, with the aid of James Brusuelas and Paul Ellis, Research Associates in Papyrology at Oxford. Our American research group is composed of three Classicists from the University of Minnesota, Nita Krevans, Philip Sellew and myself, and a team of local astrophysicists, led by Lucy Fortson. A collaboration with three members of the Zooniverse project, Chris Lintott, Arfon Smith and Michael Parrish will lead to the implementation of a software, enabling us to test the information that you have submitted (by simply clicking on the letters on the screen), and eventually make use of a provisional transcription for each single papyrus.

Now, let me thank you for your overwhelmingly positive feedback. Since the very first day the website was launched, more than 4.7 million of letters have been clicked. Users from all over the world willing to help us, both amateurs and professional scholars, have left hundreds of comments, which have revealed a useful source of information on the material uploaded online. This material may later be identified as new fragments of known, partially known or not yet preserved Ancient texts. New fragments from lost compositions may increase, even revolutionise our knowledge of Ancient Literature, or contribute to the reconstruction of works only readable in fragmentary form. At the end of the XIX century the city of Oxyrhynchus has proven to be a treasure trove of both documentary and literary texts. Today, with your help, there is potential for further discoveries.

Here is some additional information on Grenfell and Hunt excavations campaigns, complementing James’ last post. There were six excavation seasons, financed by the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society), which started in the winter of 1896/7 and ended in early March 1907. The finds were first collected in baskets, then stored in hundreds of boxes and brought to Oxford. Their discoveries proved to be sensational from the very beginning of the excavation, when Grenfell and Hunt found the Logia Iesou papyrus, containing ‘The Saying of Jesus’, now known to come from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. Although the majority of the literary papyri were found in 1906, several previously lost Greek literary texts had already been published by Grenfell and Hunt themselves in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series between 1898 and 1904. These texts, discovered in the first (20.12.1896-15.4.1897) and second (26.2.1903-9.4.1903) seasons, included a complete new poem by Sappho (P.Oxy. I 7), fragments from the Girl with the Shaven Head (P.Oxy. II 211) and the Fawner (P.Oxy. III 409) both by Menander, as well as new poems of Pindar (P.Oxy. III 408, IV 659) and Callimachus (P.Oxy. IV 661). As for documentary texts, Oxyrhynchus yielded an enormous quantity of material, illuminating the life, both private and public, of people in Egypt under the Ptolemies, and in the Roman and Late Antique era. Such texts range from private letters and shopping lists, to tax returns, wills and government circulars.

Stay tuned for more information on our project and the Ancient Lives website!