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Oxford Asks For Your Help In Decoding Egyptian Papyri

July 27, 2011

Deciphering ancient papyri is like trying to read a doctor’s handwriting, and that’s what researchers are asking people to do. Oxford University is asking for help deciphering the ancient Greek texts written in fragments of papyrus found in Egypt.

Hundreds of thousands of these papyrus fragments are now on display on a website for the general public to view, and, to hopefully translate them. Researchers are hoping the collective effort will give them a unique insight into Egyptian life 2,000 years ago.

“Online images are a window into ancient lives,” said project specialist Paul Ellis in a statement on Oford’s website.

The fragments were found 100 years ago in a surprisingly dry rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus (The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish), 100 miles south of Memphis, Egypt. Drifts of detritus 30 feet thick preserved the ancient texts.

To view and try to decipher the papyri, papyrologists had to wear white latex gloves and flatten the surfaces of the reedy scraps, photograph them, cut up the images with scissors and try to piece letters on one bit of the papyri to letters on another, allowing for holes. But now, with the Internet available to all, the process can be done much easier online at www.ancientlives.org. Visitors can use a simple computer device on the site to play with the texts and try to piece them together, like a virtual jigsaw puzzle.

Although the texts are written in Greek, Oxford said visitors to the website do not have to have any knowledge of the language in order to use the online tool to analyze the fragments.

Chris Lintott, a professor at Oxford, said visitors to the site can virtually help researchers find new fragments of ancient literature. The experience allows users to click on individual letters on the papyri and the site’s image-recognition software will match it with the right letter of the Greek alphabet.

The ancient texts contain literature, letters and even a story about how Jesus Christ cast out demons. Scholars have been studying the collection for more than 100 years and have already discovered many lost works that went missing during medieval times. They have found masterpieces by the ancient Greek poet Sappho and dramatists Menander and Sophocles.

But many of the documents the public can view on the site have not been read for more than a thousand years.

“We aim to transcribe as much as possible of the original papyri, and then identify and reconstruct the text,” project director Dr. Dirk Obbink told BBC News.

“No single pair of eyes can see and read everything. From scientists and professors to school students and ancient enthusiasts, everyone has something to contribute – and gain,” he said.

To view the ancient papyri texts and to try your hand at translating some of the thousands of fragments, go to www.ancientlives.org.