Have you ever heard of Oxyrhynchus? (pronounced äk-si-ˈriŋ-kəs)

No, it’s not a new laundry soap. In the March/April 2011 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review there is a great article on “The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: The Remarkable Discovery You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.”

The name

Oxyrhynchus is the name of a city in Egypt. It is named in Greek for the “sharp-nosed fish” that once swam in the nearby waters of the Nile.

The city

There is apparently almost nothing left to the city. “Most of its buildings had been pillaged long ago, their stone blocks carried away for use in new construction elsewhere.” (62)

The story

In 1896 two rookie archaeologists set out to search “for papyri that might reveal something of Egypt’s Christian and pagan past.” (60) Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt were graduates from Oxford. This was only their second visit to Egypt. Realizing there was nothing to find in the city proper they poked around some neighboring tombs. After three weeks of work and nothing to show for it they set their eyes on the cities ancient trash heaps. They thought they might find the remains of some discarded papers, letters and books. What they found exceeded their wildest expectations.  On January 11, 1897 the guys “sallied forth” to the trash heap accompanied by 70 workmen and boys and began to “dig trenches through a mound near a large space covered with piles of limestone chips.” Soon they discovered their first papyrus scrap. This was Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1 (abbreviated POxy 1). It was a fragment of the Gospel of Thomas though this connection wouldn’t be made until fifty years later. But this was only the tip of the iceberg. Over the span of five seasons, “they would fill 700 cartons with an estimated 500,000 papyri”! “Grenfell and Hunt published the first volume of Oxyrhynchus Papyri in 1898; in 2007, volume 72 appeared. Forty more volumes are planned . . .” (68)

The find

There are two kinds of papyri: literary and documentary. The former, which include explicitly Christian religious texts and other classical Greek texts, make up only about 10% of the discovery. The scholars have been much more excited about the other kind of papyri—that is the documentary, which makes up 90% of the discovery. What is it? “Bills, wills, lists, notes and brief letters, orders, minutes of town meetings—written remains of every conceivable sort documenting the life of the average person.” (65) Why such exuberance over something so mundane? These documentary papyri “offer countless insights into both family and public life.”  It is “scarcely possible to calculate the value of this treasure trove of papyri.” (65) One of the letters is from a husband to his wife, called “sister”, in the letter:

“Hilarion to his sister Alis, many greetings, likewise to my lady [his mother] and Apollonarion [likely his son].

Know that we are still even now in Alexandria. Do not worry if they all come back and I stay in Alexandria. I urge and beg you, be concerned about the child and if I receive my wages soon, I will send them to you. If by chance you give birth, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, throw it out. You have said to Aphrodisias, ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? So, I urge you not to worry.”

The practice of leaving children exposed to the elements to die was not uncommon in the ancient world. “But to encounter it here, embedded in a real life, is quite astonishing” notes Stephen Patterson, the author of the article.

The life and times, so to speak, of the people during this time is fleshed out in vibrant detail. Patterson explains, “They help us understand how the Romans administered the empire, how they levied taxes and tribute, how they settled disputes and how their religious sensibilities found expression. Through them we can listen in on business dealings . . . love affairs . . .and family disputes. For the historian interested in common things, they are a revelation.” (65)

The next time you take out your trash think of Oxyrhynchus.

Bernard Grenfell (left) and Arthur Hunt (right)