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Thursday, June 06, 2013 - 01:00 PM

Still from 'Citizen Science translating ancient lives' Still from "Citizen Science translating ancient lives" (Oxford/Youtube)

For over a hundred years, boxes of cornflake-sized scraps of ancient paper have been carefully tucked away at Oxford.

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.

When 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 led to a footnote to Revelation, a challenge to Homer, and a glimpse of ancient porn. (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.)

Only a tiny fraction of what's been unearthed has been studied so far. Scholars have been painstakingly sorting and translating bits of text for over a century, but mining these teeny pieces of papyri is a slow, slow process.  

That's where you and the Internet come in.

Help transcribe papyri online

The Oxyrhynchus papyri are a classical gold mine -- an accidental archive of writings that historians feared 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"

But because of Oryrhynchus, words that no one had read in a thousand years were suddenly reintroduced to the world.

Piecing together lost gems from a pile of shredded scraps is a staggering amount of work -- more than any one person could get through in a lifetime.  

To speed the process along, researchers have asked volunteers to pitch in with 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, some spare time, and maybe some swelling music to remind you how insane it is that some of these snippets could reshape history.

Want to give it a try? 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.

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?


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Comments [15]


As a new-bee to RadioLab I am glad I was directed to this show by my Professor, I find it so interesting. I am definitely one to be drawn by mystery. I am becoming an avid RadioLab listener. :)

Feb. 06 2015 12:31 PM
W Ling from Hong Kong

Engaging the public for the transcription has meaningful benefits, but realizing the manual painstaking measures to transcribe these papyri, I wonder with current graphic characters recognization (OCR) available nowadays in even copy machines, would it not be helpful to use technology to speed up the matching to reveal the intriguing information mystery hopefully within in our life time?

Sep. 11 2014 12:12 AM
Marc from Berkeley, CA

The number of the beast needs to be understood in the 1st Century Context. In ancient Mediterranean languages like Greek and Hebrew there are no separate characters for numbers. So letters are used for numbers. Although Revelations is written in Greek it refers to Hebrew numbers. The number 666 in Hebrew uses letters that spell out “Nero”. As it turns out this is confirmed by the number 616 which spells out an alternate spelling of the name “Nero”. The “Beast” is not some supernatural creature but rather the Emperor of Rome who prosecuted the “First Roman Jewish War” about the time that the Revelations of John was written. This is well understood by Biblical scholars and is explained in some of the writings of Bart Ehrman.

Jun. 21 2013 09:42 AM
James Yarger from PDX

I logged on to "Ancient Lives" the interactive tutorial link above and posted a discussion link about the Radiolab program, and I haven't gotten any response.

My question is this: why not use a photography program like Autostitch (smart phone photo application) and allow it to piece together the puzzle?

I also sent a link for the program and to the "Ancient Lives" site to one of the two fellows named on the patent for the Autostitch program via Linked-in. To which I haven't gotten any response. It turns out the parent company for Autostitch, and it's creators live in England.

Might be worth a try at least, to could save hundreds of years of man hours.

Jun. 18 2013 12:04 AM

Genghis Kahn was the most prolific rapist in history. This show turned that legacy of systematic rape as a tool of war into a lighthearted joke about sexual prowess.

Jun. 17 2013 05:20 PM

I love the almost infinite possibilities of this project, and I am as (or more) excited as you guys. But I do see one flaw in the logic of the current plan. I learned today that the vocabulary lists used by Greek and Roman scholars are not accurate. And they are not accurate to a degree I could not have predicted. About 35%.

So a third of the words we think we are using correctly, when we read the Classics, we aren't. One Third.

Maybe we should crowdsource a vocabulary list, before we try and tackle the books. Let's understand the Chicken, before we try and read the Egg. Ok Eggheads, who is with me?

Jun. 11 2013 04:17 PM
Bob Cruse from San Diego, CA, USA

It is too bad we can't treat the images with inverse color and/or indirect lighting effects. These features have helped identify many hidden/obscured/worn text in the past.

Could these be included for our use on the images?


Jun. 11 2013 01:52 AM
M. Saulnier

Tim Blosser,

The garbage accumulated over a period of roughly 1000 years. So the oldest pieces of garbage were a thousand years old by the time the city was abandoned. Hope that cleared up what they meant.

Jun. 10 2013 04:51 PM
S.H. from San Francisco

If the Genghis Khan example is correct, the U.S. can then make the slave-slaveowner lineage family tree connection with great detail. Folks could really know who is really related to whom. Very interesting. :-)

Jun. 10 2013 11:02 AM

RC Smith: good catch, thank you! Typo fixed!

Jun. 10 2013 10:52 AM
Tim Blosser from Mechanicsburg, PA

Ok. I'm confused. This segment begins by describing the desert garbage mounds as being a thousand years old. Shortly afterwards though, the host makes reference to contents first as 'almost' 2,000 years old, and still later as '2,000 years old'. He even speculates about 'Jesus himself' penning scraps found therein.

How does he go from roughly 1000 AD to 0 AD? You got some 'splainin' to do, Lucy.

Jun. 09 2013 04:16 PM

GalaxyZoo project!

Jun. 08 2013 07:41 PM
East Slope Charlie from Susanville, CA

RE: the number of "The Beast" being 666. Not until the Islamic Civilization was there a zero in 'Western' 'Civilization'. Thus, the distance between 0 and 1 is not taken into account. So -- would the number not properly be 665? (Presuming that those who copied manuscripts in Medieval Europe would not change a number or text to adjust for 'new' discoveries - keeping the 'Word of God' 'pure and true').

Jun. 08 2013 02:21 PM
RC Smith from Easton, PA

A gentle correction: the final book of the Christian Bible is singular - the Book of Revelation. Thanks!

Jun. 08 2013 08:15 AM
Carol Brydolf from Winters, California

I love all Radiolab shows, but this was my all-time favorite!!!! I've been playing it over and over again at work, to the delight/chagrin of my colleagues. "Hectooooorrrrrr!!!!"

Jun. 07 2013 07:22 PM

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