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Photo of a papyrus fragment from Euclid's Elements of Geometry
Ancient shredded papyrus… and you

Posted on 18 September 2011, 19:08

Zooniverse is a crowdsourcing website which made its name by asking Internet volunteers to help identify galaxies from vast numbers of astronomy photographs. That project, Galaxy Zoo, quickly attracted more than 80,000 volunteers who made short work of 10 million images of galaxies, deciding whether they were rotating clockwise or anticlockwise, for example.

Now Zooniverse has launched a new project, Ancient Lives, with the same aim of clearing the in-tray of experts and making new discoveries. This time, volunteers are being asked to transcribe fragments of Greek papyrus recovered in 1897 from a Roman-era town, Oxyrhynchus, which flourished in the Egyptian desert, but has since disappeared into the sands.

The fragments are from the town’s ancient rubbish dumps and include everyday stuff such as contracts, shopping lists and tax returns – but also long-lost books, plays and even gospels. One century on from when they were pulled from the sand, only a small percentage of the half a million scraps of papyrus have been deciphered. The job of identifying Greek handwriting on bits of rubbish that were sent to the dump some 2,000 years ago is much more of a challenge than galaxy-spotting, I think, but this sounds like a great project, especially if it speeds things up. The Ancient Lives website says…


For classics scholars, the vast number of damaged and fragmentary texts from the waste dumps of Greco-Roman Egypt has resulted in a difficult and time-consuming endeavor, with each manuscript requiring a character-by-character transcription… An immense number of detached fragments still linger, waiting to be joined with others to form a once intact text of ancient thought, both known and unknown. The data not only continues to reevaluate and assess the literature and knowledge of ancient Greece, but also illuminates the lives and culture of the multi-ethnic society of Greco-Roman Egypt.

The data gathered by Ancient Lives will allow us to increase the momentum by which scholars have traditionally studied the collection. After transcriptions have been collected digitally, we can combine human and computer intelligence to identify known texts and documents faster than ever before. For unknown documents, we can isolate them and begin the long process of identification.

Like any other scientific project, the data will require a lengthy process of vetting and analysis. There are no quick answers or discoveries. We want to make sure our findings are accurate. However, instead of just a few scholars going through the collection one fragment at a time, users of Ancient Lives are allowing professionals to process large batches of data at any given time.


Interested in eavesdropping on the citizens of ancient Oxyrhynchus? Visit Ancient Lives.

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