Exhibit Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, Fourth Floor
Exhibit Dates: February 19 – June 15, 2015
Imagine trying to sort out and assemble thousands of scattered pieces of jigsaw puzzles; imagine that they are as fragile and misshapen as cornflakes and that many pieces are missing. The task is only beginning to resemble the monumental efforts of today’s papyrologists, who continue to work on the Greek papyrus fragments uncovered in the late 19th century from the sands of ancient trash heaps located outside of the city of Oxyrhynchus (modern el-Bahnasa), Egypt. It has been said that over 70 percent of surviving literary papyri come from Oxyrhynchus, among which are a new poem by Simonides, extensive remains of the Hypsipyle of Euripides, and a large part of the Ichneutae of Sophocles.
This one-case exhibit explores the various ways new works have come to light since the Renaissance, when so many manuscripts were rediscovered in monastic libraries. Two new poems by Sappho, for example, were discovered just this year in an Egyptian cartonnage. In the Ptolemaic period ancients used recycled papyrus (much as we use recycled newspapers in papier-mâché) to construct cartonnages i.e. mummy masks and panels. Modern science has opened the door for more discoveries. Multispectral lighting helps us read palimpsests, which are manuscripts on which the original writing has been washed and/or scraped off in order that the parchment be reused for another text. In France a team of scientists has used a particle accelerator to bombard an unopened, charred papyrus scroll from the Villa of Papyri in Herculaneum with X-rays. The X-rays were so sensitive that they could detect changes in thickness where carbon-based ink had been used to write letters. The team could make out the Greek letters inside the tightly wound scroll.