The Ancient Lives project invites citizen scientists to transcribe ancient papyri texts from Greco-Roman Egypt.
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“One doesn’t have to call it weakness and cowardice, having to retreat, if it’s under the compulsion of a god: no, we turned our backs to flee quickly: there exists a proper time for flight.” These writings of the seventh century B.C. poet Archilochus were transcribed from a papyrus unearthed in 1897 in an excavation of the ancient Egyptian city of Oxryhynchus, the “City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish”. Along with it, scholars uncovered hundreds of thousands of papyrus fragments from the depths of the dump yards of Oxryhynchus, where ancient trash, preserved in the arid Egyptian climate, immediately became modern treasure.
Dating from third century B.C. to seventh century A.D., these texts ranged from from the works of Plato to St. Matthew’s Gospel and from lyric Greek poetry to marriage certificates, land leases, and personal letters. Some documents detailed trade transactions of olives and dates at the daily market. Others recounted personal stories, such as the generosity of the couple Apollonius and Sarapias, who sent a thousand roses and four thousand narcissuses as a wedding gift for their friend’s son. And the papyri have illuminated nuances of Greek language and education. Changes in word pronunciation have been inferred through consistency of spelling errors, and the centrality of learning to read and write made itself apparent from the types of practice tablets of young Egyptians. These texts have afforded scholars the chance to peer into working lives of people who lived centuries ago.
Unparalleled in its size, the Oxryhynchus papyrus collection currently resides at Oxford University under the ownership of the Egypt Exploration Society. Although more than a century has transpired since the excavation, only a small percentage of the papyri have been transcribed from their original ancient languages (most are in Greek, but a few are in Egyptian, Latin, and Arabic). In a project called Ancient Lives (official site), papyrologists have collaborated with computer scientists to expedite the process of identifying texts from the Oxryhynchus excavation, reconstructing documents, and transcribing them. Ancient Lives enlists the help of “volunteer papyrologists” (individuals with no expertise but an interest in the classics) to assist in the transcribing of digitized texts which have been uploaded to a database for online visualization.
Those interested in getting involved can visit the website, generate a login for Zooniverse (home to the Galaxy Zoo project, among other citizen science projects), and start viewing ancient papyrus texts and saving transcriptions. The site is equipped with examples of the Greek alphabet and what letters look like in the context of ancient text, and the blog includes helpful information such as deciphering cursive text, common letter combinations, and the meanings of typical Greek symbols. Since Ancient Lives started in the summer of 2011, the project has logged over 1.5 million transcriptions and volunteers have enabled the identification of hundreds of texts, including the historically significant works of notable Greek scholars like Plutarch and Simonide. Volunteer efforts through the project continue to transform old and obtuse documents into meaningful information about ancient Egyptian culture and Greek literature.
So if you’re looking for something to make you feel young again, check out Ancient Lives and see what it really means to be old.
Sheetal Modi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University where she studies how bacteria develop and spread antibiotic resistance. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and when she’s not growing her bacterial cultures (and repeatedly killing them), she enjoys science communication and being outside.