The archaeological site of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt is highly regarded as the most important grammatological location discovered in history. The site has yielded an enormous collection of papyri dating from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods that help explain early Egyptian history and corroborate ancient European and Eastern philosophies.
Etymology of a Funny Name
The name Oxyrhynchus is most definitely an unusual one and its etymology is even more interesting. The village of Oxyrhynchus was named after a Nile River fish. The word is Greek and means ‘sharp nosed’. This sharp-snouted fish is important in Egypt’s mythology as the one that bit the penis of Osiris the Egyptian god of life, death, and fertility.
Oxyrhynchus or el-Bahnasa, its modern Arab Egyptian name, lies 100 miles south of Cairo and west of the Nile River. Egypt was ceding itself from the Ottoman to the British Empire in 1882, permitting British archaeologists to excavate the country by systematic study. Bernard Grenfell, a fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford, first began excavating the site in 1896.
Nothing of Interest
The site, at first, appeared uninteresting with mounds of rubbish littering the ground. However, the unique climatic conditions had preserved an unequalled archive of written documents of the ancient world and Grenfell and his team were about to discover a torrent of papyri texts that literally swamped the academic world like a Nile flood.
Since Grenfell’s discovery, archaeologists have sifted through the Oxyrhynchus’ sand in search of lost masterpieces from antiquity. In particular, Grenfell and his colleague, Arthur Hunt, were anxious to unearth Classical period texts and the same passion and hope has inspired hundreds of archaeologists since to be similarly inspired.
A Staggering Collection
It is universally agreed that more than 70 percent of all of the world’s literary papyri comes from the Oxyrhynchus site. This staggering collection is why it is so important.
Even so, less than 10 percent of the yield is literary texts. The remaining 90 percent of the papyri are public and private documents such as registers, rules, commands, religious writings, census papers, tax returns, court petitions, wills, accounts, sales documents, lease contracts, stock inventories, and personal letters.
Several ‘lost’ plays were discovered including ‘Ichneutae’ by Sophocles, a large selection of plays by the Hellenistic comedian, Menander, and poems by Pindar. Among the thousands of fragments and manuscripts were two unknown Christian works titled ‘Gospel of Thomas’ and ‘Gospel According to the Hebrews’. Neither is regarded as canonical.
Sifting the Sand
Apart from the war years Grenfell and Hunt devoted every digging season to the site at Oxyrhynchus. Hundreds of Egyptian labourers were employed during the cooler winter months to excavate the ‘rubbish mounds’.
Over the centuries the discarded papyri had become mixed with earth in layered form. Excavators had to carefully dig into the hardened ground and lift the tightly packed layers in lumps.
Grenfell and Hunt supervised the sifting of the layered dirt and cleaning of the remaining papyri. It was then packaged and shipped back to England where the two archaeologists would analyse their finds over the summer months.
The archaeological site is still of extreme interest today and excavation continues as it has for more than one hundred years. More than 100,000 fragments of papyri are archived with photos and indexing in the Sackler Library in Oxford, England. This is the largest collection of classical manuscripts in the world with about 2,000 pieces being glass mounted on display and the remaining fragments in over 800 archival boxes.