Thursday, March 17, 2016

Oxyrhynchus, Ancient Egypt's Most Literate Trash Heap | Atlas Obscura

Oxyrhynchus, Ancient Egypt's Most Literate Trash Heap

An ancient Egyptian landfill of plays, gospels, and mash notes gives new meaning to trashy writing.

Bernard Grenfell (left) and Arthur Hunt (right) outside their tent in the Delta. (Photo: © The Egypt Exploration Society

Although Pompeii and King Tut get the biggest headlines, the most informative archaeological site ever discovered isn't a town, temple, or tomb: it's a massive garbage heap near (and partly underneath) El-Bahnasa, Egypt—a place called Oxyrhynchus. 

If you don't produce garbage, to a large extent you don't exist to historians. Trash heaps—or "middens," in archaeological parlance—are records of everyday life, the stuff so obvious (or embarrassing) you'd never bother to write it down. The same problems that bedevil landfills today, like the anaerobic environments that stop compressed trash from breaking down, are exactly what preserved the archaeological record of Britain's transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age (East Chisenbury), Japan's Jomon-era development of trade and rice farming (sites throughout the Japanese archipelago), South African settlements during the Pleistocene (Elands Bay Cave), and more. And since trash piles up in strata as it's created, it forms its own easy-to-read timeline. 

Even among the MVPs of well-preserved trash, Oxyrhynchus is something special. It's in a desert where it never rains, and it's well outside any river's flood plain. It was a multi-cultural crossroads which was alternately part of the Nubian, Persian, Greek, Ptolemaic, Roman, Byzantine, and Fatimid empires. It held some of the earliest Christian monasteries and one of the oldest Egyptian mosques. Most importantly, it was a dumping ground for hundreds of thousands of pieces of papyrus—a wide-ranging library of classical texts, official records, personal correspondence, and grocery lists.