Classics > Research > Research Projects > Oxyrhynchus Papryi

Oxyrhunchus Papyri

This project began with the excavation, in 1897-1907, of the town-site of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. The excavators, B P Grenfell and A S Hunt (both Fellows of Queen's College, Oxford), recovered more than 100,000 pieces, fragments and scraps of papyrus, mostly in Greek, dating from the Roman and early Byzantine periods; the Egypt Exploration Society, which funded the dig, deposited these in Oxford. Since then scholars have worked to catalogue, decipher and publish this material. The first volume of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri appeared in 1898, volume 77 in 2011; there are at least 40 more volumes to come.

Papyrus: P.Oxy. 3965

Unknown Greek literature from Oxyrhynchus: the mini-epic of Simonides on the Battle of Plataea (P.Oxy. 3965, 2nd cent. AD). © Imaging Papyri Project

In 1966 the operation was formally adopted as a Major Research Project of the British Academy, jointly between Oxford University and University College London. The project enjoys a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board until August 2014. The project is overseen by the Egypt Exploration Society, and the collection is housed by the University of Oxford in the Sackler Library. The papyri, some 5,000 published and mounted in glass, the rest conserved in boxes, are housed in a workroom adjacent to the Sackler Library, with their indexes, archives and photographic record. The workroom serves also as the office of the project's Researcher and Administrator, Dr. Daniela Colomo.

The mass of unedited material represents the random waste-paper of seven centuries of Graeco-Egyptian life. About 10% is literary, i.e. the fragmentary remains of ancient books; the rest documents public and private (codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records; sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes, private letters).

The book-fragments provide early texts of the Greek literature that we knew already, and unique texts of the Greek literature that got lost in the Middle Ages; they are also evidence for the range and depth of literate culture among the hellenic diaspora. The documents provide grass-roots evidence for the law, society, economy and mentalité of Hellenes and Egyptians within the Roman and Byzantine Empire.

Papyrus: P.Oxy. 4539

Social life at Oxyrhynchus: "Tayris asks you to dinner for the offering to our Lady Isis, in the Iseum, on the 8th, from the 9th hour" (P.Oxy. 4539, 2nd/3rd cent. AD.) © Imaging Papyri Project

The focus of the project is the publication of this material: 5,100 items to date. We produce one new volume each year (published by the Egypt Exploration Society under the auspices of the British Academy); each volume contains a selection of material, covering a wide range of subjects; the editors include senior professionals but also students studying papyrology at doctoral or undergraduate level. Thus recent volumes offer early fragments of the Gospels and of Revelation, early witnesses to the texts of Apollonius Rhodius, Aristophanes, Demosthenes and Euripides, unknown texts of Simonides and Menander and the epigrammatist Nicarchus, specimens of Greek music, and of magic and astrology, and of the early tradition of the scholarly commentary, alongside documents which illustrate both the daily round (building a cistern, leasing a loom, celebrating a festival) and the reflexes of government (petitioning the governor, administering the cursus publicus, provisioning an imperial campaign). The texts are published in printed form; images of published pieces are being systematically mounted on the project's website. See also a related project directed by Dr Dirk Obbink, Imaging Papyri (with acknowledgment to this project also for the above images).

Further details

Director: Dr Dirk Obbink