Once again, technology makes a breakthrough that adds to mankind’s knowledge of his own history.

In the late 1800’s, some 400,000 fragments of nasty, decayed, worm-eaten papyrus were dug up from a trash heap outside an ancient Graeco-Egyptian town in central Egypt. It’s known as the Oxyrhynchus collection, named after the town in question.

They were unreadable at the time, but Oxford recognized the potential historical value of the material and squirreled it away in the Sackler Library. The theory was, “Well, we can’t read it now, but someday we will be able to.”

That time is now. And it may transform our historical knowledge of 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.

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 BC.

Sophocles is best known for works such as Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Now, for the first time, we have recovered portions of a lost play called Epigonoi (“The Progeny”), which is the story of the siege of Thebes. A bit of the text has already been translated:

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 researchers at Oxford also believe that they are likely to recover lost Christian gospels, dating back to the earliest books of the New Testament. Can you believe it? Lost Christian gospels!

Any way you look at it, this is a colossally important (re)discovery in human history which will contribute not merely to our literary canon from the Ancient World, but our understanding of those ancient civilizations and how modern Western society evolved from it.

To think it all came from a trash heap!

Hat tip to The Light of Reason and PhysOrg.

One Response to “The Holy Grail of Classical History”
  1. TallDave says:

    Great news!

    Victor Davis Hanson will be thrilled.

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