Sheer Dumb Luck: The Oxyrhynchus Papyri

If you ever go (or have gone) to Egypt, I imagine most people would visit Giza in the Greater Cairo Metropolis, home to the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx, and a stone’s throw from Memphis, the ancient Pharaonic capital of the Old Kingdom. I mean, tourism in Egypt is all about the history, and all the history is in Giza, right?

But just 160 kilometres south-southwest of Cairo, in the governate of Al-Minya, sits the city of Oxyrhynchus, and one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. While it’s not a particularly glamorous locale, it’s worth a thought at least. For the past century, the area around Oxyrhynchus has been continually excavated, yielding an enormous collection of papyrus texts dating from the time of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of Egyptian history. Among the ancient works discovered at Oxyrhynchus are the plays of Menander, fragments from the Gospel of Thomas, and parts from Euclid’s Elements.

The great irony of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, however, is that such a vital source of information about the ancient world exists only because of what is essentially a landfill site.

For more than 1,000 years, the inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus dumped their refuse at a series of sites out in the desert sands beyond the town limits. The area west of the Nile has virtually no rain, so the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus were gradually covered with sand and were forgotten for another 1,000 years, left undisturbed in the sun-scorched sands of the Libyan Desert.

Because Egyptian society under the Greeks and Romans was governed bureaucratically, and because Oxyrhynchus was the capital of the 19th nome (administrative division), the material at the Oxyrhynchus dumps included vast amounts of papyri. Accounts, tax returns, census material, invoices, receipts, correspondence on administrative, military, religious, economic, and political matters, certificates and licenses of all kinds—all these were periodically cleaned out of government offices, put in wicker baskets, and dumped out in the desert. Private citizens added their own piles of unwanted papyri. Because papyrus was expensive, they were often reused: a document might have farm accounts on one side, and a student’s text of Homer on the other. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, therefore, contain a complete record of the life of the town, and of the civilizations and empires of which the town was a part of throughout its existence.

While the Library of Alexandria burned at the hands of fanatics and conquerors, depriving us of unimaginable insights into history, philosophy and art, the papers carelessly thrown away by the citizens of Oxyrhynchus survived to the modern day.

It makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, while it is true that a great deal of what we know today is because of the conscious efforts of individuals and organizations (such as the spectacular translation and preservation work done during the Islamic Golden Age), so much more is simply the result of coincidence and sheer dumb luck.

We’ve lost texts that the ancients considered to be absolutely essential, while utterly trivial – even plagiarized – work has survived unharmed! So if we want our descendants to remember more than glittering emo-vampires and autotuned teen pop stars, perhaps we need to think about not just what we keep and save and treasure, but also what we delete, destroy, and throw away. Because, as Oxyrhynchus aptly illustrates, what we bury has a habit of popping back up when we least expect it…

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