For over a hundred years, boxes of cornflake-sized scraps of ancient paper have been tucked away at Oxford. Waiting to be decoded. And now you can help shed light on what they say.
The fragments are thousands of years old, dug out a of 30-foot deep trash mound in what was once the city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Oxyrhynchus turned out to be a great location for a stash of papyrus to ride out the centuries -- it doesn't get a lot of rain, and the dry desert sands kept the ancient writings from dissolving into oblivion.
The Oxyrhynchus papyri are a classical gold mine -- an accidental archive of literature that historians thought had been lost to the ages:
The traditional classical world leaves us no actual books: the great Library of Alexandria, the twenty-eight public libraries of imperial Rome have disappeared without trace. We are left with copies of copies, chance survivals through the Empire and Middle Ages. We have ideas of what’s missing, but these losses seemed final. -- P.J. Parsons, "Waste Paper City"
Because of Oryrhynchus, words that no one had read in a thousand years were suddenly reintroduced to the world. As the first pieces were dusted off in 1897, they were so startling they helped inspire a whole new field of study: Papyrology. Since then, they've revealed a heap of historic discoveries -- discoveries that lead to a footnote to Revelation, a challenge to Homer, and an unexpected glimpse into everyday life. (If you haven't heard our episode Detective Stories, that's all I'm going say about Jad's three favorite Greatest Hits of Ancient Garbage...go listen.)
Scholars have continued to painstakingly sort and translate pieces of text for over a century, but mining all these bits of papyri is a slow, slow process. Only a tiny fraction have been studied so far. That's where you and the Internet come in.
To speed the process along, researchers are looking for game volunteers to pitch in on some crowdsourced transcribing -- you don't need to know anything about the classics or read Greek (the language of most of the texts). All you need is an eye for detail, a little spare time, and maybe some swelling music to remind you how insane it is that some of these snippets could reshape history.
Take a few minutes to spin through the interactive tutorial, then dive in and start matching up characters. The work you do will automatically get saved, and passed on to scholars who'll carefully check everything and start trying to identify and translate the texts.
It's a staggering amount of work -- more than any one person could ever get through in a lifetime. And even with tons of volunteers, it's still going to take a long time. But come on, how often do you get a shot at maybe, possibly...someday...helping to unlock a 2,000-year-old secret?