[Paleopsych] Independent: Decoded at last: the 'classical holy grail' that may rewrite the history of the world
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Mon Apr 18 16:51:05 UTC 2005
Decoded at last: the 'classical holy grail' that may rewrite the history of the
[Leading article: A second renaissance? independent portfolio attached.
I'm not so sure I would want a second renaissance. The first one had the
effect of turning the youth of our race into wise old men whose authority
was not to be questioned. Mathematicians, instead of pushing on with the
purely Western idea of the calculus, went back to Classical geometry. And
sailors stopped carrying fruit on their travels since no authority could
be found in Galen. Furthermore, the witchcraft hysteria was a product of
the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages. The paintings were certainly great,
the first real portraits came during the Renaissance. Until modern times,
portraits were done poorly, if at all, outside the Occident. I also note
that sculpture got caught up with the ancient Greeks around 1450. (I
conducted a search to find out the approximate date at the National
Gallery of Art when a blockbuster Greek sculpture exhibit was shown around
a decade ago. But while the witchcraft frenzy was going on, humanism, the
idea that reason can uncover truths and (ultimately) that revelation is
not needed, got rolling. What these discoveries portent is a deepening of
our knowledge of our sister civilization. I doubt any early MSS of the
Gospels will be found, not because they were dictated by the Holy Ghost,
but because the first one was a literary construction. See Dennis R[onald]
MacDonald (Claremont School of Theology), 1946- , _The Homeric Epics and
the Gospel of Mark_ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). We may find
some collections of sayings of a certain trouble-making rabbi who railed
against the hypocrisy of his day and got the religious establishment to
engage in successful rent-seeking, namely to have the (Roman) government
do away with the competition, and this would be valuable. Whether the
collection talked about the Second Coming is the first thing I'd like to
know. More non-canonical Gospels would be welcome, too. I've at least
glanced at most of the extant ones. None contain a whole story of Jesus'
life like the canonical ones. The few that deal with the Crucifixion
differ in small details. The infant gospels sound wholly speculative. Some
are quite mystical, like the fascinating Gospel of Mary Magdalene. But all
are vastly inferior as literature. And it's the good stuff that tends to
survive in multiple copies, though it's just a bare tendency. Think how
many copies of Freud's garbarage are around.]
Scientists begin to unlock the secrets of papyrus scraps bearing long-lost
words by the literary giants of Greece and Rome
By David Keys and Nicholas Pyke
17 April 2005
For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in
equal measure - a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it
could redraw the map of classical civilisation. If only it was
Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of
finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed
infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus
Papyri, and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies,
tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.
In the past four days alone, Oxford's classicists have used it to make
a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles,
Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost
for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost
Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time
of the earliest books of the New Testament.
The original papyrus documents, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump
in central Egypt, are often meaningless to the naked eye - decayed,
worm-eaten and blackened by the passage of time. But scientists using
the new photographic technique, developed from satellite imaging, are
bringing the original writing back into view. Academics have hailed it
as a development which could lead to a 20 per cent increase in the
number of great Greek and Roman works in existence. Some are even
predicting a "second Renaissance".
Christopher Pelling, Regius Professor of Greek at the University of
Oxford, described the new works as "central texts which scholars have
been speculating about for centuries".
Professor Richard Janko, a leading British scholar, formerly of
University College London, now head of classics at the University of
Michigan, said: "Normally we are lucky to get one such find per
decade." One discovery in particular, a 30-line passage from the poet
Archilocos, of whom only 500 lines survive in total, is described as
"invaluable" by Dr Peter Jones, author and co-founder of the Friends
of Classics campaign.
The papyrus fragments were discovered in historic dumps outside the
Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus ("city of the sharp-nosed fish")
in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Running to 400,000
fragments, stored in 800 boxes at Oxford's Sackler Library, it is the
biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world.
The previously unknown texts, read for the first time last week,
include parts of a long-lost tragedy - the Epigonoi ("Progeny") by the
5th-century BC Greek playwright Sophocles; part of a lost novel by the
2nd-century Greek writer Lucian; unknown material by Euripides;
mythological poetry by the 1st-century BC Greek poet Parthenios; work
by the 7th-century BC poet Hesiod; and an epic poem by Archilochos, a
7th-century successor of Homer, describing events leading up to the
Trojan War. Additional material from Hesiod, Euripides and Sophocles
almost certainly await discovery.
Oxford academics have been working alongside infra-red specialists
from Brigham Young University, Utah. Their operation is likely to
increase the number of great literary works fully or partially
surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth. It could
easily double the surviving body of lesser work - the pulp fiction and
sitcoms of the day.
"The Oxyrhynchus collection is of unparalleled importance - especially
now that it can be read fully and relatively quickly," said the Oxford
academic directing the research, Dr Dirk Obbink. "The material will
shed light on virtually every aspect of life in Hellenistic and Roman
Egypt, and, by extension, in the classical world as a whole."
The breakthrough has also caught the imagination of cultural
commentators. Melvyn Bragg, author and presenter, said: "It's the most
fantastic news. There are two things here. The first is how enormously
influential the Greeks were in science and the arts. The second is how
little of their writing we have. The prospect of having more to look
at is wonderful."
Bettany Hughes, historian and broadcaster, who has presented TV series
including Mysteries of the Ancients and The Spartans, said: "Egyptian
rubbish dumps were gold mines. The classical corpus is like a jigsaw
puzzle picked up at a jumble sale - many more pieces missing than are
there. Scholars have always mourned the loss of works of genius -
plays by Sophocles, Sappho's other poems, epics. These discoveries
promise to change the textual map of the golden ages of Greece and
When it has all been read - mainly in Greek, but sometimes in Latin,
Hebrew, Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic, Nubian and early Persian -
the new material will probably add up to around five million words.
Texts deciphered over the past few days will be published next month
by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, which financed the
discovery and owns the collection.
A 21st-century technique reveals antiquity's secrets
Since it was unearthed more than a century ago, the hoard of documents
known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri has fascinated classical scholars.
There are 400,000 fragments, many containing text from the great
writers of antiquity. But only a small proportion have been read so
far. Many were illegible.
Now scientists are using multi-spectral imaging techniques developed
from satellite technology to read the papyri at Oxford University's
Sackler Library. The fragments, preserved between sheets of glass,
respond to the infra-red spectrum - ink invisible to the naked eye can
be seen and photographed.
The fragments form part of a giant "jigsaw puzzle" to be reassembled.
Missing "pieces" can be supplied from quotations by later authors, and
Key words from the master of Greek tragedy
Speaker A: . . . gobbling the whole, sharpening the flashing iron.
Speaker B: And the helmets are shaking their purple-dyed crests, and
for the wearers of breast-plates the weavers are striking up the wise
shuttle's songs, that wakes up those who are asleep.
Speaker A: And he is gluing together the chariot's rail.
These words were written by the Greek dramatist Sophocles, and are the
only known fragment we have of his lost play Epigonoi (literally "The
Progeny"), the story of the siege of Thebes. Until last week's hi-tech
analysis of ancient scripts at Oxford University, no one knew of their
existence, and this is the first time they have been published.
Sophocles (495-405 BC), was a giant of the golden age of Greek
civilisation, a dramatist who work alongside and competed with
Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes.
His best-known work is Oedipus Rex, the play that later gave its name
to the Freudian theory, in which the hero kills his father and marries
his mother - in a doomed attempt to escape the curse he brings upon
himself. His other masterpieces include Antigone and Electra.
Sophocles was the cultured son of a wealthy Greek merchant, living at
the height of the Greek empire. An accomplished actor, he performed in
many of his own plays. He also served as a priest and sat on the
committee that administered Athens. A great dramatic innovator, he
wrote more than 120 plays, but only seven survive in full.
Last week's remarkable finds also include work by Euripides, Hesiod
and Lucian, plus a large and particularly significant paragraph of
text from the Elegies, by Archilochos, a Greek poet of the 7th century
A second renaissance?
17 April 2005
Like explorers mapping the globe in sailing ships, scholars are
expanding the known world across the terra incognita of classical
literature. As we report today, infra-red technology has enabled
hundreds of ancient Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems, composed
by classical greats such as Sophocles, Euripides and Hesiod, to be
deciphered for the first time in 2,000 years. The dramatic increase in
great literary works surviving from the ancient Greek world is
prompting experts to predict a "second renaissance". The documents,
known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump
in central Egypt, are also thought to include lost Christian gospels.
Of course, this is exciting in its own right, but it could be the shot
in the arm that teaching of the classics have needed for so long. Like
genealogy, they could come to be more widely perceived as not only
interesting but, good heavens, fashionable.
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