For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in equal measure – a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it could redraw the map of classical civilisation. If only it was legible.
Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.
In the past four days alone, Oxford’s classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament.
The original papyrus documents, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump in central Egypt, are often meaningless to the naked eye – decayed, worm-eaten and blackened by the passage of time. But scientists using the new photographic technique, developed from satellite imaging, are bringing the original writing back into view. Academics have hailed it as a development which could lead to a 20 per cent increase in the number of great Greek and Roman works in existence. Some are even predicting a “second Renaissance”.
The following is from a post to the Paglia List by Damion Matthews:
The Oxyrhynchus site has been updated to reflect a translation from a newly transcribed papyrus of a work from Archilochus.
This is a "tentative reconstruction" of the fragment, written by project leader Dirk Obbink of the University of Oxford, and Universty of Michigan. Obbink is a 2001 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship. A recent BBC interview with him can be heard at http://audio.theworld.org/wma/2005/05037.wma ).
Archilocus, unread for almost 2,000 years:
"One doesn't call it weakness and cowardice, having to retreat under the compulsion of a god. No, we turned our backs to flee quickly. There exists a proper time for flight. So, once, Telephos from Arcadia routed the great army of Argives, spear-men though they were. And the fair-flowing river Kaïkos and the plain of Mysia were filled with corpses as they fell. And being slain at the hands of this relentless man (Telephos), the well-greaved Achaeans turned-off with headlong speed to the shore of the much-resounding sea. Gladly did the sons of the immortals and brothers, whom Agamemnon was leading to holy Ilium to wage war, flee to their swift ships. On that occasion, because they had lost their way, they arrived at this shore. And they set upon the lovely city of Teuthras where, while snorting fury along with their horses, they came in distress of spirit. For they thought they were attacking the high-gated city of Troy, but in fact they had their feet on the wheat-bearing Mysia, land of miraculous growth. Then Heracles, shouting out, issued a command to his brave-hearted son Telephos, fierce and pitiless in cruel war, who, inciting unfortunate flight for the Danaans, strove alone in battle to gratify his father."
There is also a fragment from a version of the "Metamorphoses", recounting the suicide of Narcissus. It is being attributed to Parthenius of Nicaea, who was an influence on both Ovid and Vergil (for instance, he wrote about Daphne turning into a tree before Ovid did.)
" ... A cruel heart he had: he [Narcissus] hated all of them, until he conceived a love for his own form. Within a spring, he wailed, seeing his face delightful as a dream: he wept for his beauty. Then the boy shed his blood and gave it to the earth to bear."
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