Monday, April 18, 2005

Lost and found--the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

There are few things more satisfying than finding something thought to be irretrievably lost. In my own life, this usually ends up being something as mundane as an earring or a glove. I seem to specialize in losing a singleton of things that come in pairs.

As long as the missing one remains on the lam, there's always something there to remind me--the lonely survivor, staring up at me in mute reminder of my carelessness. But when the lost object surfaces--as they sometimes do, in some closet or pocket, or under my bed or dresser--there's a joyous leap of the heart that parodies "Amazing Grace": it was lost, but now it's found.

To go from the loss of the trivial (glove, earring) to the sublime: I have always grieved the burning of the library of Alexandria--that is, ever since I first heard about it in a history class. Now, I know it happened a long time ago, but I'm a bookish sort, and the notion of all those works of antiquity lost forever, and by a human agency at that, fills me with regret and even a bit of anger. After all, this wasn't just carelessness or the passage of time, it was wanton destruction.

I've loved the plays of Sophocles ever since I studied them in high school. They had initially sounded so dry and boring, and I was dreading reading them, so their poetry and emotion were a real revelation. I later heard that there is evidence that Sophocles wrote one hundred and twenty plays, the bulk of which are lost, since only seven complete texts survive. I wished there were a magic wand to rediscover those lost texts, that time could be turned back and they could be retrieved and saved. But of course a thing is impossible, except in science fiction.

Or, is it? I just learned, in this article by Dr. Sanity, that modern science may have come to the rescue--literally.

Here's the gist of it:
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.

I had always consoled myself with the idea that the works that have survived are probably the best, the creme of the crop. Perhaps that's true; but, wonderfully, we may now be able to find out, by comparing them to others. Apparently, there's something for everyone:

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.

And Sophocles? He's in there, too; a portion of one of his tragedies is part of the find and is being deciphered.

It's only a fraction of the lost works, but perhaps further finds, and further advances in technology, will help us to recover even more. Modern science is a double-edged sword, giving us dilemmas and problems along with its advances, but this particular application of modern science to ancient literature can only be considered wonderful, stupendous, glorious. It touches the heart and spirit as well as the mind--a graphic demonstration that even that which had once seemed lost forever can sometimes be found.


At 2:52 PM, April 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember feeling sad as a kid about "lost" classical works - about history that would never be known. The Name of the Rose also addresses this - the burning of the Abbey and its antique library. How many times in history did that happen?

Score one for modern technology.


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