Finds in Ancient Egyptian rubbish dumps inspire "world's largest archaeological project"
Touted as the world's largest archaeological project, an online search for clues is crowd-sourcing the details of ancient lives in Egypt - from 19th century rubbish dumps
Deciphering these fragile little scraps can be enlightening. "For drunken headache: wear leaves of Alexandrian chamaedaphne strung together," reads one papyrus cure for ulcers, haemorrhoids or poor eyes.
Brown and torn, the notes are as heavily open to interpretation as Morse Code muffled through a tin can. The Ashmolean Museum holds this avalanche of plays, letters, receipts, wills and government letters from the lives of people living between the 1st and 6th centuries, and a website where readers can match Greek letters to fragments has already attracted registrations from more than 250,000 volunteers who believe they have the definitive answers to these uncertain snapshots of ancient Egypt. Only 1.5 percent of the million-item collection has so far been transcribed and identified.
"The great Library of Alexandria, the 28 public libraries of imperial Rome have disappeared without trace. We are left with copies of copies, chance survivals through the Empire and Middle Ages.
"Oxyrhynchus restores to us authors famous in classical times, who went under in the Middle Ages: the songs of Sappho, the sitcom of Menander, the elegant and learned elegies of Callimachus that Roman poets liked to boast of imitating.
"Oxyrhynchus yielded a huge random mass of everyday papers — private letters and shopping lists, tax returns and government circulars. We know far more about Oxyrhynchus as a functioning town, and about its people as living individuals, than we do about many more glamorous ruins.
"We know that on November 2 AD 182, the slave Epaphroditus, eight years old, leaned out of a bedroom window to watch the castanet-players in the street below, and slipped and fell and was killed. The reason we know so much, and in such detail, is rubbish."
Parsons portrays theirs as a lonely life, boxing and shipping finds in baskets and old biscuit tins. Hunt shopped for medicines, fish-hooks, curiosities and a well-stocked revolver; Grenfell's brother wished him luck with "the gravedigging", only for Grenfell to end his career following his third nervous breakdown, in 1920.
John Darlington, whose own story-driven interest is in the loose fragments of stained glass recovered from the destroyed St Michael's cathedral in Coventry, will introduce Dr Dirk Obbink, the leader of the translation project, in a special event at the Royal Geographical Society next month.
"We simply couldn't resist asking Dirk to come and tell his story," says Darlington, who is part of the World Monuments Fund.
"It directly links people who might be sitting in their living rooms in London, Lima or Lusaka with a small fragment of the past – and then gets them to help."
- Talk takes place at the Royal Geographical Society, London on March 1 2016. Tickets £20, book online. Follow the World Monuments Fund on Twitter @worldmonuments.
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