April 18, 2005

A new form of the Urim and Thummim?

Some previously-unreadable portions of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, a collection of document-fragments found in 1897 in an ancient town dump about 300 km south of Alexandria, are now being read by newly-applied imaging technology. According to The Independent:

...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.

According to the story in The Scotsman, only about 2,000 of the 100,000 papyrus fragments excavated from Oxyrhynchus had previously been read. The new finds are said to include

parts of the Epigonoi, (Progeny), a long-lost tragedy by Sophocles, the 5th century BC Greek playwright, and part of a lost novel by Lucian, a 2nd century Greek writer. There is also an epic poem by Archilochos, a 7th century successor of Homer, which describes events leading up to the Trojan war.

The Independent writes that

Oxford's classicists... 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.

POxy ("Oxyrhynchus Online") tells us the place where the papyri were found was a "county town" whose residents "called it Oxyrhynchus, or Oxyrhynchon polis, ‘City of the Sharp-nosed Fish’". The great thing is that

The town dumps of ancient Oxyrhynchus remained intact right up to the late nineteenth century. They didn’t look exciting, just a series of mounds covered with drifting sand. But they offered ideal conditions for preservation. In this part of Egypt it never rains; perishables which are above the reach of ground water will survive. In the dumps was something which the famous sites of classical Greece and Italy could not preserve: papyrus, the ancient equivalent of paper.

Quite a lot of other good stuff is available on the POxy site, all of it (so far) about results prior to the recent breakthroughs.

A newly-decoded fragment of Sophocles' Epigonoi is offered in translation:

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.

The project leader is Dr. Dirk Obbink, named a MacArthur fellow in 2001. The Independent says that "Oxford academics have been working alongside infra-red specialists from Brigham Young University, Utah", but doesn't identify the BYU people.

There's some resonance here with an older optical technology, the "seer stones" Urim and Thummim that Joseph Smith used in his translation of the Book of Mormon. According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (vol. XVIII, part III):

Joseph Smith, sprung of parents reported to be specially responsive to local conditions, said in 1838 that on the night of September 21, 1823, at his home in Manchester, near Canandaigua, New York, the angel Moroni three times appeared to him with a revelation of “Golden Plates” buried on Cumorah Hill, and that on September 22, 1827, in accordance with instructions, he dug up the same, and found them covered with small, mystic characters “of the Reformed Egyptian style”—as Professor Talmage hints. It was a time when people were still talking of the Rosetta Stone, when travelling showmen were exhibiting mummies, and when the Egyptian style was affecting the public taste, even in some housebuilding. 9

With the aid of a pair of crystal spectacles, his “Urim and Thummim,” which Smith said he found, and with the co-operation of certain kindred spirits, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer by name, whose services were the more valuable because Smith seemed expert neither in reading nor in writing, in 1830 the Book of Mormon was published, and the angel Moroni, according to the narrative, then took away the “Golden Plates.”

Many people's response to the announcement from Oxford is similar to this reaction from Niraj at Blogcritics.org:

Personally, I'm a big fan of Sophocles, and hope to read his newly discovered works as soon as it's [sic] translated.

However, the previously-read parts of the Oxyrhynchus collection are mostly in the form of scattered fragments, not whole works. I don't see any reason, so far, to think that the new stuff will be different.

[Update: Ray Girvan writes to suggest that the BYU group involved must be the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, which previously did multispectral imaging on the Herculaneum and Petra papyri. ]

[Update 4/25./2005: Note that this debunking comment at Ars Technica argues that there's nothing really new happening here, and probably not anything worth calling a breakthrough.

It was clear from the beginning that the technique of multispectral imaging is not at all new, that many Oxyrhynchus fragments have already been decoded over the years, and that the likely outcome would be a stream of new fragments rather than a flood of new texts. However, the Ars Technica comments (by "Hannibal") suggest that even this much may be going too far in support of what may be yet another credulous and under-researched piece of journalistic sensation-mongering.

The cited scholars are reputable, but of course the spin came from (the reporters) David Keyes and Nicholas Pyke at The Independent, Alastair Dalton at The Scotsman, etc., and thus is suspect. There is now a page on the POxy site discussing the developments, which gives a much more sober and balanced assessment:

The results provided many new readings and confirmation of uncertain readings in some problematic areas, none at all in others, depending on settings and surface type. A number of new identifications emerged of literary and documentary texts not previously made by the usual means, together with the isolation of four or five different types of surface and obscurity that respond well or not well to the BYU process.

More specifically

The process seemed to work best on darkened, charred, or stained surfaces, and can image through some surface materials, but sees nothing through mud, clay, or silt. It produced excellent results on palimpsests, cancellations, and erasures due to damnatio memoriae, and on disintegrating surfaces where the ink has settled deep into the fibres. It was least successful on surfaces that were partially or entirely washed out. On abraded and uneven surfaces the camera's long depth of field elides differences in levels and aids reading by eliminating all shadows and levelling so that all writing appears well-defined as though on a single layer.

We can't really tell whether the breathless "holy grail" stuff in the news reports was provoked by the scholars (scholars are not always innocent of hype, when given a shot at it) or entirely invented by the journalists. In this sort of case, my rule of thumb is to blame the journalists, who at a minimum failed to ask a few probing questions and to poke around for some relevant background on the web.

I suspect that the quality of MSM reporting has always been this bad. We just didn't noticed it before, because there was no effective mechanism for knowledgeable people to circulate corrective information. However, it's possible that the pressure of competition for a dwindling pool of readers has recently been making things a bit worse. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 18, 2005 07:30 AM