Ancient Lives: Papyrology for People Who aren’t Papyrologists

A few months ago I was introduced to the University of of Oxford’s Ancient Lives papyri transcription project while TAing a class for Eric Smith. This morning I rediscovered it and have been having some fun transcribing ancient Greek fragments.

The site is an attempt to harness the power of the people in an effort to transcribe as-yet unpublished Greek papyri fragments from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt:

Ancient Lives is a collaboration between a diverse collection of Oxford Papyrologists and Researchers, The Imaging Papyri Project, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, the Egypt Exploration Society and the following institutions.

The papyri belong to the Egypt Exploration Society and their texts will eventually be published and numbered in Society’s Greco-Roman Memoirs series in the volumes entitled The Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

The best part, though, is that you don’t need to be a papyrologist to get in on the fun. You don’t even need to know Greek! (Although it doesn’t hurt…) The interface for the transcription project is incredibly user-friendly, even for non-specialists. I watched an entire classroom of NT Intro students (most of whom had never taken a day of Greek) spend an hour exploring the site and transcribing fragments. They were into it.

The site loads for you a papyrus fragment. You look at the letters on the papyrus (even for people who know Greek, that’s all they are at first) and try to match each one up with a letter or special character in the ancient Greek alphabet. Here’s a screenshot of a fragment I’m currently working on to give you an idea:


The blue circles are letters that I have, or think I have, identified so far. The red circle is the current letter I am deciphering.

As you can see, there’s a handy alphabet list at the bottom to help you match papyri letters to the alphabet. Even more helpful, if you hover over a letter in the alphabet with your cursor, you can see a couple “standard” examples of the letter just to the right (the current example is for “N”). If you get stumped and can’t identify any more letters, you can hit the “Next” button to see a fresh fragment. Someone else will probably ID what you couldn’t. It’s a shirker’s dream.

As I mentioned above, you don’t need to know Greek. All you need to be able to do is match handwritten shapes. Make your best guess and have fun.

Although you’ll never be personally credited, you can impress people at bars with the story of how you helped decipher some ancient texts. Trust me: you’ll never pay for a drink again.