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Thursday, April 21, 2005

BUT WAIT--DON'T REPORTERS KNOW STUFF? 

Virginia Postrel recently passed on the amazing news of a recent report in the Independent that a vast collection of hitherto unreadable ancient Greek and Roman writings known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri has just been reclaimed, owing to a "breakthrough" in infrared imaging by a team of scientists and classicists at Oxford University. Recovered works by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod, and scores of other classical authors; lost Christian gospels; public documents, letters, and other literary ephemera by and about the regular Joes of antiquity--all of it newly available. And the scope of the recovery truly is vast--perhaps "a 20 per cent increase in the number of great Greek and Roman works in existence."

Fascinating, I thought. For about 15 minutes. Until some follow-up Googling uncovered this, by a writer named Hannibal at Ars Technica:
When a fellow Ars staffer asked me on IRC a few days ago if I'd heard the big news about the recent startling discoveries coming out of Oxyrhynchus, my response was a dismissive "no," with some comments to the effect that if there were any such big finds it would be really strange if I hadn't heard about them, since I'm currently taking a papyrology seminar at University of Chicago with the head of the SBL papyrology group and we're working on texts from Oxyrhynchus. Then he sent me a link to a sensational story in The Independent that's making the rounds right now.

***

Of course I was excited, but the story rang a few alarm bells. First, as I mentioned above, I'm reading some of these texts in class with papyrologist David Martinez, who specializes in Egyptian papyri and would be one of the first people to know if there were any major breakthroughs coming out. Usually, rumors of any really big news in this fairly obscure field circulates through a very small grapevine before bubbling up into the mainstream media. Surely work as earth-shattering as that described in the news article wouldn't be totally unknown to the rest of the papyrology field, and if my professor did know about it then it certainly would've gotten a mention by now.

Another problem with the story is that it implies that the Oxyrhynchus texts are this hidden hoard of texts that we just can't read, and this breakthrough will somehow magically unlock all of them and make them instantaneously readable. Certainly many of these texts are damaged to the point where the letters are hard to make out, but the really big problems arise not so much from deciphering the letter forms as from piecing together numerous small but individually legible fragments into the proper order. And often when fragments are fitted together, there are huge gaps in the text, called lacunae, where text is missing. As the Independent article does indeed mention, the Oxyrhynchus collection is a lot like the world's most vexing jigsaw puzzle. But no amount of spectral analysis is going to solve the problem of how to put the pieces back together.

And then there's the fact that infrared imaging and multispectral analysis of Oxyrhynchus papyri has been going on for over two decades. In the aforementioned seminar's introductory lecture, Martinez described these techniques, so it's not like using IR and multispectral analysis on these texts is a new thing.
Hannibal lists further problems before concluding thus:
At the very best, the Independent's reporters are covering some kind of new imaging breakthrough in an extremely hyperbolic fashion. And at the worst, they're trying to make a major story out of 20-year-old news.
Who's right? Beats me, though Hannibal's criticisms seem awfully compelling.

On a related front ("related" in this context meaning "completely unrelated"), what will future scholars think when they unlock this string of ones and zeros? (Click on that link. Now. I mean it.)

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