Home > E. Religion: palimpsest & reconstruction > Oxyrhynchus–Trash and Treasures

Oxyrhynchus–Trash and Treasures

File:Oxyrhynchos map.gifTo begin with, Oxyrhynchus was a garbage dump in Ptolemaic Egypt. Nothing fancy here:  old tax-assessments, petitions, leases, bills, and horoscopes. Notice however, that all of these are written recordsunder the Ptolemies, Oxyrhynchus was the capital of the 19th nome of Egypt, and, as such, produced masses of administrative documents. The city reached its zenith under the Ptolemies and during early Christian times, experienced a gradual decline under the Romans and Byzantines, and was abandoned after the Arab conquest. During the town’s long life, an immense number of papyrus documents–including literature and religious texts–were thrown away at the dump.

So matters remained for a thousand years, while the extremely dry climate of the area preserved the vast horde of writing. Finally, in 1892, two young British archaeologists, Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, discovered the dump and the excavations began.

And what a treasure trove they discovered! Many thousands of manuscripts have been recovered (at the end of their first excavation season alone, Grenfell and Hunt sent 280 boxes of manuscripts to Oxford), and though literary and religious works comprise only 10% of the finds so far, these works have significantly broadened our knowledge of Biblical and extra-canonical writings. These manuscripts include: 1. (from the Septuagint), fragments from Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, and Job; 2. (from the New Testament), fragments from four manuscripts of Matthew, fragments from the other three gospels and the Pauline letters, and pieces of the NT apocrypha. Other items discovered include the first known fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, a piece from the Gospel of Mary, possibly, fragments from the Gospel of Peter, and a fragment from the Gospel to the Hebrews (P 655).

And then there is the Greek literature and mathematics, which include: 1) plays of Menander, 2) diagrams from Euclid’s Elements, 3) a large piece from Sophocles’ Ichneutae, 4) an epitome of 7 of the 107 lost books of Livy (in Latin), and 5) a large fragment of a poem by Sappho. These finds have been so impressive, that, in fact, the archaeological site has been more-or-less continuously excavated since its discovery.


Wow! But the best news is: the excavations continue–who knows what may turn up?



Related RT Posts: 1) The Great Library of Alexandria; 2) The Novgorod Codex.


Map: Egypt, showing the location of Oxyrhynchus; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: