By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Discoveries

  • Oxyrhynchus is a city in Upper Egypt, located about 160 km south-southwest of Cairo and west of the Nile.
  • In ancient times, it was the site of the capital of the 19th Upper Egypt Nome (a district).
  • After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., it was re-established as a Greek city and given its name, Oxyrhynchus Polis. It was the third largest city in Egypt.
  • In Greek, Oxyrhynchus means "city of the sharp-nosed fish." Scholars are a bit at a loss over which species of fish might be implied by this name.
  • Once Egypt was Christianized, it was the site of many churches and monasteries.
  • Scholars think it was abandoned after the Arabs invaded Egypt in 641 C.E.
  • A modern town (el-Bahnasa) now stands on the site of the ancient city.
  • Oxyrhynchus, however, is also a very important archaeological site.
  • By chance, in the late nineteenth century, inhabitants began finding things among the mounds surrounding the city.
  • They began selling these ancient documents to western museums.
  • In 1897, two scholars, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, began a systematic excavation around the city. They were both in their late twenties and were funded by the Egypt Exploration Society of London.
  • In 1898, they published their first collection of the documents. Grenfell died in 1920, and Hunt continued the work until he also passed on in 1934. By this time, many other excavators had joined the project.
  • Grenfell and Hunt spent their entire careers on this excavation, and became experts in the study of papyrology, which is the analysis of ancient documents written on papyrus. Papyrology also includes the translation and preservation of said documents.
  • Turns out that for more than a thousand years, people had dumped garbage in the sands outside the city. Because of its high location, the city did not regularly flood with the rising of the Nile. Over time, the water continued to recede, and the garbage dumps were covered over with sand, exquisitely preserving vast amounts of papyrus paper.
  • Because Oxyrhynchus was a bustling administrative region, its inhabitants created an enormous amount of everyday documents.
  • These documents included all the administrative workings of the city. Apparently, officials regularly cleaned out their files, put them in wicker baskets, and dumped them on the garbage sites surrounding the city – receipts, tax returns, census materials, invoices, certificates, licenses, etc.
  • Private citizens did the same. So it is that they have found students' lessons, books, and farm accounts, etc.
  • Once scholars realized what they had discovered, they intensified their search, hoping to find copies of the lost masterpieces of Greek literature. The results have been both heartening and disappointing. Roughly 70% of known literary papyri has now come from Oxyrhynchus, but this only comprises about 10% of the documents that have been recovered.
  • Many unknown works have been discovered.
  • Included among the finds were significant religious works. Many of the OT books are represented. They also found fragments of several non-canonical gospels and other writings, along with portions of Matthew, Mark, Romans, and 1 John. The non-canonical writings include The Apocalypse of Baruch, the Gospel of the Hebrews, The Shepherd of Hermas, and The Gospels of Thomas and Philip.
  • There are also dozens of hymns, prayers, sermons, and letters.
  • Most of these writings date from the 3rd to the 6th centuries.

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