Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


There are few remains at Oxyrhynchus to be seen above ground: its treasures lie beneath the sands

Oxyrhynchus (sometimes spelled Oxyrhynkhos) is an archaeological site in Egypt, one of the most important ever discovered. For the past century the area around Oxyrhynchus has been continuously excavated, yielding an enormous collection of papyrus texts from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods of Egyptian history. Among the texts discovered at Oxyrhynchus are plays of Menander and the so-called Gospel of Thomas, an important early Christian document.

History of the site

Oxyrhynchus is about 160km south-south-west of Cairo, and lies west of the main course of the Nile, on the Bahr Yusuf (Canal of Joseph), a branch of the Nile that terminates in Lake Moeris and the Fayum oasis. In Ancient Egyptian times, there was a town on the site called Per-medjed, but it did not become an important centre until after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. It was then refounded as a Greek town, called Oxyrhynchon Polis, or "town of the sharp-nosed fish." The name derived from a species of fish common in the river, which was worshipped by the Egyptians.

In Hellenistic times Oxyrhynchus was a prosperous regional capital, the third largest city in Egypt. After Egypt was converted to Christianity, it was famous for its many churches and monasteries. It remained a prominent, though gradually declining, town in the Roman and Byzantine periods. After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641, the canal system on which the town depended was allowed to fall into disrepair, and Oxyrhynchus was abandoned. Today the town of el-Bahnasa occupies part of the ancient site.

For a thousand years the inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus dumped their rubbish at a series of sites out in the desert sands beyond the town limits. The fact that the town was built on a canal rather than on the Nile itself was important, because this meant that the area did not flood every year with the rising of the river, as did the districts along the riverbank. When the canals dried up, the water table fell and never rose again. The area west of the Nile has virtually no rain, so the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus were gradually covered with sand and lay, dry, sterile and forgotten, for another thousand years.

Because Egyptian society under the Greeks and Romans was governed bureaucratically, and because Oxyrhynchus was a regional capital, the material at the Oxyrhynchus dumps included vast amounts of paper. Accounts, tax returns, census material, invoices, receipts, correspondence on administrative, military, religious, economic and political matters, certificates and licences of all kinds - all these were periodically cleaned out of government offices, put in wicker baskets, and dumped out in the desert. Private citizens added their own piles of unwanted paper. Because papyrus was expensive, paper was often re-used: a document might have farm accounts on one side, and a schoolboy's text of Homer on the other. The Oxyrhynchus papyri thus contained a complete record of the life of the town, and of the civilisations the town was a part of.

The town site of Oxyrhynchus itself has never been excavated, because the modern Egyptian town is on top of it. But it is believed that the city had many public buildings, including a theater which could seat eleven thousand spectators, a hippodrome, four public baths, a gymnasium, which was an important center of cultural life during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and two small ports on the Bahr Yusuf canal. It is also likely that there were military buildings, such as barracks, since the city supported a military garrison on several occasions during the Roman and Byzantine periods. During the Greek and Roman periods, Oxyrhynchus had temples to Serapis, Zeus-Amun, Hera-Isis, Atargatis-Bethnnis and Osiris. There were also Greek temples to Demeter, Dionysius, Hermes and Apollo and Roman temples to Jupiter Capitolinus and Mars. In the Christian era, Oxyrhynchus was the seat of a bishop, and the town still has several Coptic Christian churches of great antiquity.

Excavation at Oxyrhynchus

Bernard Grenfell

In 1882 Egypt, while still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, came under effective British rule, and British archaeologists began the systematic exploration of the country. Because Oxyrhynchus was not an Ancient Egyptian site of any importance, it was neglected until 1896, when two young excavators, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, both Fellows of Queen's College, Oxford, began to excavate it. "My first impressions on examining the site were not very favourable," wrote Grenfell. "The rubbish mounds were nothing but rubbish mounds." But they very soon realised what they had found. The unique combination of climate and circumstance had left at Oxyrhynchus an unequalled archive of the ancient world. "The flow of papyri soon became a torrent," Grenfell recalled. "Merely turning up the soil with one's boot would frequently disclose a layer."

Being classically educated Englishmen, Grenfell and Hunt were mainly interested in the possibility that Oxyrhynchus might reveal the lost masterpieces of classical Greek literature: the lost plays, histories and philosophical works of ancient Athens. They knew that the Constitution of Athens by Aristotle had been discovered on Egyptian papyrus in 1890. This hope inspired them and their successors to sift through the mountains of rubbish at Oxyrhynchus for the next century. Unfortunately, Oxyrhynchus was a fairly ordinary provincial town, not a centre of learning, and most of its citizens had little interest in literature or philosophy. Besides, copies of the classics were rare and expensive in ancient times, and not likely to find their way to the rubbish dump. This means that literary finds were few, and most of them were copies of the well-known standard works, such as Homer, on which Hellenistic education was based.

Arthur Hunt

Of the many thousands of papyri excavated from Oxyrhynchus, only about ten percent was literary. The rest consisted of public and private documents: codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records, sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes and private letters. Nevertheless, Grenfell and Hunt found enough to keep them going in the hope of finding more. In their first year of digging, they found parts of several lost plays of Sophocles, such as the Ichneutae and many other books and fragments, including parts of what appeared to be an unknown Christian gospel. These discoveries captured the public imagination, and Grenfell and Hunt sent articles and photos to newspapers in Britain, arguing the importance of their work and seeking donations to keep it going.

Grenfell and Hunt devoted the rest of their lives to the diggings at Oxyrhynchus, apart from the years of the First World War. Every winter, when the Egyptian climate was bearable for Englishmen, Grenfell and Hunt supervised hundreds of Egyptian workers, excavating the rubbish mounds, digging up tightly packed layers of papyrus mixed with earth. The finds were sifted, partly cleaned and then shipped to Grenfell and Hunt's base at Oxford. During the summer Grenfell and Hunt cleaned, sorted, translated and compared the year's haul, assembling complete texts from dozens of fragments and extracts. In 1898 they published the first volume of their finds. They worked closely together, each revising what the other wrote, and publishing the result jointly. In 1920, however, Grenfell died, leaving Hunt to continue with other collaborators until his own death in 1934.

Finds at Oxyrhynchus

Although the hope of finding all the lost literary works of antiquity at Oxyrhynchus were not realised, many important Greek texts were found at the site. These include poems of Pindar, fragments of Sappho and Alcaeus, along with larger pieces of Alcman, Ibycus and Corinna. There was also a large part of the Ichneutae of Sophocles, extensive remains of the Hypsipyle of Euripides and a large portion of the plays of Menander. Also found was the oldest and most complete diagrams from Euclid's Elements of Geometry. Another important find was the historical work known as the Hellenica Oxyrhynchus, whose author is unknown but may be Ephorus. A life of Euripides by Satyrus was also unearthed, while an epitome of some of the lost books of Livy was the most important literary find in Latin.

The classical author who has most benefitted from the finds at Oxyrhynchus is the Athenian playwright Menander (342-291 BC), whose comedies were very popular in Hellenistic times and whose works therefore are frequently found in papyrus fragments. Menander plays found in whole or in part at Oxyrhynchus include Misoumenos, Dis Exapaton, Georgos, Encheiridion, Karchedonios, Kolax, Leucaia, and Perinthia. The work at Oxyrhynchus has greatly raised Menander's status among classicists and scholars of the Greek theatre, since he wrote in a much more popular style than the dramatists of the previous century.

Of the Christian texts found at Oxyrhynchus, the most important is the text known as the Gospel of Thomas, also known as the Sayings of Jesus (Papyrus number 1654), probably dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD, but believed to preserve an oral tradition which may go back to the mid 1st century. Some small number of Christians believe that the Gospel preserves an authentic tradition of the life of Jesus older than that in the New Testament, though no mainstream Christian denomination has accepted this. Other Oxyrhynchus texts preserve parts of the Apocalypse of Baruch (chapters 12-14, 4th or 5th century, number 403), the Gospel according to the Hebrews (3rd century AD, number 655), The Shepherd of Hermas (3rd or 4th century; number 404), and a work of Irenaeus, 3rd century, number 405). Many early Christian hymns, prayers and letters have also been found.

The Project Today

A typical papyrus manuscript from Oxyrhynchus, written in demotic Greek handwriting. The holes are caused by worms.

Since the 1930s work at Oxyrhynchus has continued, interrupted only by World War II and the Suez Crisis of 1956. For the past 20 years it has been under the supervision of Professor Peter Parsons of Oxford. Sixty-seven large volumes of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri have been published under the auspices of Oxford University and the Egyptian Exploration Society, and these have become an essential reference work for the study of Egypt between the 4th century BC and the 7th century AD. They are also extremely important for the history of the early Christian Church, since many Christian documents have been found at Oxyrhynchus in far earlier versions than those known elsewhere. At least another 40 volumes are anticipated.

Since the days of Grenfell and Hunt, the focus of attention at Oxyrhynchus has shifted. Modern archaeologists are less interested in finding the lost plays of Aeschylus (although some still dig in hope) and more in learning about the social, economic and political life of the ancient world. This shift in emphasis had made Oxyrhynchus, if anything, even more important, for the very ordinariness of most of its preserved documents makes them most valuable for modern scholars of the social history school. Many works on Egyptian and Roman social and economic history and on the history of Christianity rely heavily on documents from Oxyrhynchus.

In 1966 the Oxyrhynchus excavations and the publication of the papyri was formally adopted as a Major Research Project of the British Academy, jointly managed by Oxford University and University College London and headed by Peter Parsons. The project's chief researcher and administrator is Dr Nikolaos Gonis. The Academy provided funding until 1999; the project now enjoys a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, which will fund ongoing work until 2005. Today the papyri are housed at the Sackler Library, Oxford, with their indexes, archives and photographic record. About 2,000 items are mounted in glass as a display, the rest are conserved in boxes.

The focus of the project is now mainly on the publication of this vast archive of material: by 2003 4,700 items had been translated, edited and published. Publication continues at the rate of about one new volume each year. Each volume contains a selection of material, covering a wide range of subjects. The editors include senior professionals but also students studying papyrology at doctoral or undergraduate level. Thus recent volumes offer early fragments of the Gospels and of the Book of Revelation, early witnesses to the texts of Apollonius Rhodius, Aristophanes, Demosthenes and Euripides, previously unknown texts of Simonides and Menander and of the epigrammatist Nicarchus. Other subjects covered include specimens of Greek music and documents relating to magic and astrology.

External links