Day By Day

Monday, April 18, 2005

Hyping the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

Eureka! Extraordinary discovery unlocks secrets of the ancients
Decoded at last: the 'classical holy grail' that may rewrite the history of the world
[headlines from the Independent]

Oxford University manuscript experts are using infra-red lighting and satellite imaging techniques to reveal previously illegible texts in a large horde of Greek and Roman manuscripts recovered from an Egyptian garbage dump. The papyrus collection is huge, consisting of more than 400,000 fragments, and includes fragments of previously lost works from some of the classical world's greatest authors. Rendering them legible is certainly a matter of great importance for classical scholars.

But, as important as these texts are, they cannot reasonably be characterized as the 'classical holy grail', nor do they have the potential to "rewrite the history of the world."

The hype machine is ramping up and it is not just the fault of journalists. Academic scholars have predicted that as the recovery of texts continues it will spark "a new renaissance" [not just a renaissance in classical studies, but a general revival of intellectual activity such as Europe underwent at the dawn of the modern era]. They also predict the discovery of new gospels that will revolutionize our understanding of early Christianity. The number of known Greek texts, they say, will increase by twenty percent, or one hundred percent, depending on who you ask.

In other words, they are straining to make a significant addition to our knowledge of Classical literature into a world-changing event.

Some perspective: The Independent article reprints a translation of a previously lost text from Sophocles' "Epigonoi" which reads:

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.

That's it. It's interesting, but hardly world-shaking. It in no way revises our understanding of Sophocles' work or his place in the history of drama. Perhaps other fragments will be more revelatory but it is unlikely that any or all of them will "rewrite the history of the world."

Nor are the technicians who are undertaking this recovery "scientists" in any meaningful sense of the word. The use of advanced technology does not make a person a "scientist." Nor can the term be usefully applied to the classical scholars who will make use of the texts.

Serious scholars know how to separate the hype from the history, but the public does not. There are all sorts of incentives for scholars to exaggerate the importance of their work and to present it in excessively dramatic terms, but every time they do they diminish the credibility of their enterprise. There is probably no way to influence how the idiot press covers scholarship, and I suppose we should be thankful that they notice our work at all, but scholars themselves have an obligation to eschew flights of fancy and to present a sober, realistic assessment of their work to the public. At the very least scholars should deny reporters the opportunity to place extravagent and outrageous assertions within quotation marks.

And please, please, quit claiming to be "scientists."

Read the Independent account here. The project's official site is here. Visit it -- there are some fascinating, if not world-changing, pieces of information there. Check it out.


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