So in the small but passionate world that follows such things, it came as something of a shock when the British newspaper The Independent printed an article in April announcing a major Oxyrhynchus breakthrough.
"Decoded at last: the 'classical holy grail' that may rewrite the history of the world," the headline said. The newspaper went on to say that, that week alone, new infrared technology had allowed researchers "to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world."
Immediately, phone lines were buzzing and e-mail was flying. Important discoveries from the collection are generally announced in academic journals and on the Oxyrhynchus Web site before the world at large hears about them. But no such announcements had been made; few people, if any, seemed to know what in fact was going on.
At Oxford, Dr. Dirk Obbink, a lecturer in Greek literature and papyrology who directs a project that among other things puts images of the papyri on the Internet, took the unusual step of issuing a statement that tried to put some of the assertions in context. "The article surely should not have said (if it did) that all the papyri had been discovered yesterday, only that we made significant (and sufficiently exciting) advances," the statement said.
As is so often the case with British newspapers, the Independent article turned out to be both true and not true. It was right to say that new technology was indeed making it easier, in some cases, to read the Oxyrhynchus material, and that new discoveries were being made. But it was not right to say that the technology had just been discovered, or that it was functioning as a sort of Rosetta stone, or that so many new revelations were emerging as to herald "a second Renaissance."
"This stuff has been coming out for years now, and some of the things mentioned in the Independent story are months or years old," said Dr. James Romm, an associate professor of classics at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and the director of its classical studies program. He called the article "very much overhyped" in a field where any public attention at all is rare.
"I'd love to know who first talked to whom in order to generate such good P.R," Dr. Romm said in an interview. "There is material coming out from those authors, but it's coming out in dribs and drabs."
In addition, Dr. Obbink said, there is a newly discovered poem about Narcissus that appears to have been the basis for Ovid's poem on the same subject. He said he was hopeful that the technology would help provide new insights on biblical history by helping to decipher New Testament manuscripts in the collection - including books that did not make it into the New Testament, bits of which are contained in the papyri.
A visit to the project, deep inside Oxford's handsome Sackler Library, shows that work is proceeding much the same way it always has - that is, slowly. Scholars surrounded by fat, obscure reference works sit outside the main office, poring over minute scraps of dirty, frayed material that to an outsider appear wholly undecipherable. Inside, more than 800 boxes are used to store the whole collection. Fragments are mounted on glass when they are being worked on and once they have been published.
The first task is to translate the work into English, usually from ancient Greek. The next is to try to place it somewhere - perhaps within the existing literature, perhaps as something that stands on its own and has yet to be categorized, perhaps as part of a lost work by a known author. The plays of Sophocles would fall into the last category. Though he is known to have written 120 of them, only 7 have survived intact; many of the rest appear in bits and pieces scattered throughout the collection.
Researchers try to date the work from clues like spelling and the way certain words are used; they analyze the writing style to discern whether it is prose or poetry, old or new, history or oratory, and who may have written it.
But the technology can go only so far. "You have to put all your knowledge of language and literature to put a story together and provide a context," Dr. Nikolaos Gonis, the administrator of the project and curator of the collection, said in an interview. "There has been a boom in technology, but it doesn't replace the knowledge of the language and the eye that has to focus on the details."
Meanwhile, the Washington Post's science writer (Guy Gugliotta) has written his first bit on this ... some excerpts:
The technology, multispectral imaging, has dramatically increased the recovery rate. In a pass through a collection of Oxyrhynchus papyri at Oxford University's Sackler Library last month, scholars turned up tantalizing new bits of lost plays by Euripides, Sophocles and Menander and lost lines from the poets Sappho, Hesiod and Archilochus.
"It's one of the most exciting things we've ever done," said Roger T. Macfarlane, a classicist at Brigham Young University. "There are pieces of papyrus that have gesso [a plaster] over the text, but with the filters it's almost like X-ray vision."
A BYU team led by Macfarlane has been using multispectral imaging since 1999, and it turned to the Oxyrhynchus fragments after focusing first on the spectacular Villa of the Papyri, an entire Roman library roasted in place during the fabled eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii in A.D. 79.
Between them, the charred Herculaneum scrolls and the Oxyrhynchus trash are the world's two largest known repositories of previously unread ancient manuscripts -- a collection of staggering potential.
"We have seven plays by Sophocles, and there are about 90 missing. Euripides wrote 100 plays and Menander about 70," said Richard Janko, a classicist at the University of Michigan. "Herculaneum is the only place in the ancient world where a library has been buried, and the garbage dump is almost as good."
Also, the material from Oxyrhynchus, unlike Herculaneum's, "is what people throw away," Obbink said in a telephone interview. "There are private papers, public records, and pieces of Menander and Sophocles. Finding a page from a book is typical."
Obbink, who holds appointments at both Oxford and the University of Michigan, is a leading authority on ancient classics and conservation. He won a 2001 MacArthur Fellowship for his work at both Oxyrhynchus and Herculaneum. In 1996, he reconstructed Philodemus's "On Piety," a treatise on the gods and religion, from seemingly disparate pieces of the Herculaneum scrolls.
At Oxyrhynchus, Obbink is trying to repeat this achievement by recovering Hesiod's "Catalogue of Women," a genealogy describing the love affairs of gods with mortals and the offspring they produced. "We have so many pieces now that the text can be said to exist," Obbink said. "There are a lot of gaps, but you can read it."
Unlike in the European Middle Ages, when books were made of animal hide parchment so costly that virtually no one but the very rich could own one, ordinary citizens had access to papyrus -- the leaf of a common plant -- and they might buy a scroll or, after the 4th century, a loose-leaf book known as a codex.
"There was access to literacy during the Roman period, and many people at least could write their names in their personal dealings," Obbink said. "Some women were literate and were teaching school."
Evidence for all of this can be found in the dump. Obbink said the largest percentage of literary texts at Oxyrhynchus is made up of fragments of Homer, whose archaic Greek was taught in school to hone language skills.
Euripides, Sophocles and Menander were popular authors read for amusement, and when the flimsy pieces started to give way, readers tore off the damaged ones, used the margins for writing notes to themselves and then tossed them in the trash. It worked the other way, too. Literary texts frequently appeared on the backs of recycled personal documents.
Obbink and his colleagues have found a variety of languages and scripts in the fragments. Besides Greek and Latin, they include Hieratic (cursive hieroglyphs), Demotic (hieroglyphic shorthand), Coptic (Egyptian with the Greek alphabet), Aramaic, Hebrew, Persian, Old Nubian, Syriac and, in the later deposits, Arabic.
Obbink is going through 725 boxes of material to pick out the promising fragments, which are assigned to students "who translate them and try to figure them out," he said. "It's part of learning Greek and Latin, and it sharpens your editing skills."
There's also a piece in the Seattle Times, which reproduces something from the Chicago Tribune, which came out a week or so ago.
I also notice that the project has added a bunch of stuff related to this at the POxy website. Of particular interest is an article from BBC History magazine on the above-mentioned Narcissus thing -- interestingly, written by the guy who started the hype (i.e. the Independent's David Keys; the Independent article is also available at the site).