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Fragments of Egyptian History Volume 59 Number 5, September/October 2006
by Paul B. Harvey

[image] New technology allows damaged papyrus fragments to be read for the first time. [LARGER IMAGE]

The online exhibit of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Imaging Project takes viewers on a virtual tour of a pile of ancient Egyptian garbage. The searchable archive includes more than 50,000 papyrus fragments recovered from a dump in the northern Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. Some fragments, dating from the fourth century b.c. to the seventh century a.d., reveal glimpses of everyday life: where Thonis the fisherman lived, how much the horse doctors spent on wine at the chariot races. Other documents reveal ancient tragedies--how an eight-year-old slave named Epaphroditus fell to his death after leaning too far out of a bedroom window to watch castanet players in the street below; how Sabina, in a jealous rage, hit another woman with a key which left her bedridden for days.

An online tour of the northern Egyptian city, generously packed with images of artifacts and aerial views, leads visitors through the once flourishing regional capital where citizens dumped their garbage outside the city gates, leaving a centuries-long paper trail protected from the Nile's flooding. At the turn of the nineteenth century, two eccentric Oxford Egyptologists discovered the dump, which has yielded copies of lost poems by Sappho and Homer alongside early copies of the Gospels, greengrocers lists, government records, ancient sex manuals, and thousands of other documents too quotidian for the great Library of Alexandria.

Recent technological advances have made documents that seemed too damaged to read, legible again. The site includes a section on multispectral imaging--a technology developed by NASA for viewing distant planets that uses wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light to increase image resolution. The technique is demonstrated via a Flash player--move a cursor over a fragment of the Gospel of Romans, and script slowly appears, like invisible ink, along with a meshwork of fibers, providing a near-tactile sensation. It is also awesome to view a 2,500-year-old document on the Internet with technology developed to peer into the farthest reaches of space. The Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Imaging Project can be found at

Jocelyn Selim is senior associate editor at Discover magazine.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America