Help Transcribe the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

Looks like the folks at Oxford are jumping on the crowdsourcing bandwagon … today my mailbox is filling up with coverage appealing to “armchair archaeologists” (philologists? paleographers shurely) to help with that famous archive of papyri. Since I have a readership who know what the Oxyrhynchus Papyri are, we’ll post the BBC coverage, even if it does use that word ‘decoding’ in its headline:

Oxford University is asking for help deciphering ancient Greek texts written on fragments of papyrus found in Egypt.

Hundreds of thousands of images have gone on display on a website which encourages armchair archaeologists to help catalogue and translate them.

Researchers hope the collective effort will give them a unique insight into life in Egypt 1,000 years ago.

Project specialist Paul Ellis said: “Online images are a window into ancient lives.”

The collection is made up of papyri recovered in the early 20th Century from the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, the so-called “City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish”.

At the time the city was under Greek rule. Later the Romans settled the area.

The papyri contain literature, letters and even a story about how Jesus Christ cast out demons.
Missing masterpieces

Scholars have been studying the Oxyrhynchus collection for more than 100 years and have already rediscovered many lost works that went missing during medieval times.

They have found masterpieces by the ancient Greek poet Sappho and dramatists Menander and Sophocles.

Many of the documents the public can see on the site have not been read for over 1,000 years.

But although they are written in Greek, visitors to the website do not have to have any knowledge of the language in order to use an online tool to help analyse the fragments.

One letter, written in 127 AD, which has already been translated is from a grandmother called Sarapias asking that her daughter is brought home so that she can be present at the birth of her grandchild.

Project director Dr Dirk Obbink said: “We aim to transcribe as much as possible of the original papyri, and then identify and reconstruct the text.

“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.”

The Daily Mail’s coverage has some really nice photos, and some tantalizing text to get the “armchair archaeologists” involved.

In recent times we’ve heard of crowdsourcing in a Civil War Project and there’s even a website devoted to crowdsourcing projects (not all are ‘literary’, of course). And while I’m usually gung-ho about connecting technology and ancient stuff, in this case I’m a bit diffident. A visit to the Ancient Lives website shows a very slick interface, but it really isn’t intuitive how one should begin. All that is there to click on is ‘Lightbox’ (other than the menu along the top) and I’m still not clear what this is … is it a random papyrus for me to work on? Are others working on it? The tutorial definitely needs another section like “getting started”. Once you are in and have figured things out, you are presented with a Greek keyboard layout, which probably isn’t the best thing from a ‘crowdsourcing’ point of view. Sure, a Classicist or Papyrologist who regularly works with Greek keyboards will recognize the layout, but the “armchair archaeologists” would, no doubt, be more comfortable with an alphabetic layout and perhaps one that was a bit larger/easier to read — before I figured out it was a Greek layout (haven’t used one in years), I spent a good three or four minutes looking for a gamma. Whatever the case, as far as a crowdsourcing project goes, this seems to be attractive to a relatively small crowd: unless the interface is made more ‘armchair friendly’ (for want of a better term), this projects seems more the sort of thing that undergrads in Greek or grad students needing some other procrastination station would participate in … not really a recipe for getting a lot of folks involved. We’ll monitor the project’s project, of course …

For  somewhat rosier reviews:

UPDATE (a couple of hours later): the folks behind the project were talking about it on BBC radio this a.m.: Help transcribe Egyptian ‘gossip’ (tip o’ the pileus to Slashdot)

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