Imaging Papyri


P.Oxy 2075 © Imaging Papyri Project

This project, which began in 1998 under the direction of Dr Dirk Obbink, Tutor in Greek Literature (Christ Church), works to capture digitised images of Greek and Latin papyri at Oxford and Naples, for the creation of an Oxford bank of digitised images of papyri. The newly digitised versions of the literary texts will be published.

The collection of papyri housed at Oxford represents a sizeable amount of ancient manuscripts, published and unpublished, of Greek and Latin authors and historical documents (3rd century BC-7th century AD). Housed in the Ashmolean (mainly from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt) and in the Bodleian (from Herculaneum in Italy), the latter are largely the works of the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus (ca. 110-40 BC), which were carbonised and thus preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. More originals are housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples.

The papyri in the Ashmolean were recovered from the rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus and other Graeco-Roman towns and brought to England in the late 19th century. They preserve the works of numerous lost Greek authors, as well as important historical documents, private letters, and imperial decrees. The Herculaneum papyri are being re-edited with a translation and brief commentary by an international team (first volume: Philodemus On Piety, editor D Obbink, Oxford 1996). The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are edited by a working group of students and scholars from around the world (a Major Research Project of the British Academy) and are published annually in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (67 volumes to date).

The papyri are also used for teaching purposes and provide the material of dissertations. At the same time, digital and scanning technologies offer a wide range of possibilities for improved readings and transmission of images. Digitally recorded images of the papyri can be captured and enhanced for further legibility; this data can then be indefinitely stored for future use and dissemination. Images can be linked to on-line versions of edited texts with translations, for simultaneous viewing, study, and improvement. The papyri, originally found together, were separated by dealers and collectors and now reside separately in numerous European collections.

The objective of the project is to create a data-bank of digitised images of papyri, photographs, and facsimiles at Oxford, internationally renowned as a centre for the study of ancient manuscripts, which would facilitate instantaneous transmission of images to collaborators and other interested parties, and allow for re-combination and collation of pieces preserved separately. Since the images are permanently storable, a welcome by-product comes in the reduced user wear on the delicate original papyri and facsimiles.


B.Grenfell and A. Hunt excavating in the Fayune, Egypt. © Imaging Papyri Project

B.Grenfell and A. Hunt excavating in the Fayune, Egypt. © Imaging Papyri Project


The work is very painstaking: the aim is to reconstruct as much as possible of each original papyrus roll and then to reconstruct the text. The reconstruction requires a constant sequence of conjecture, objection, improvement, and eventually, agreement. No single scholar can see all that needs to be done.


From P.Oxy.3577. A letter referring to Oxyrhynchus © Imaging Papyri Project

From P.Oxy.3577. A letter referring to Oxyrhynchus © Imaging Papyri Project

An American consortium for imaging papyri in American collections (APIS) has agreed to contribute a mirror image of its site for distribution via the Oxford server to European users. We also implemented at Oxford a copy of the data bank of on-line texts of documentary papyri at Duke University (DDDP) for continued maintenance and development. To this body of digitised texts will be added on-line texts of the literary and subliterary papyri which will be further linked to the archived images.

Further details:

Director: Dr Dirk Obbink