archaeology in the garbage -- 8/26/20

Today's selection -- from The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston. The treasure trove of human garbage:

"Franz Boas, the father of modern American anthropology, reportedly said, 'Man never lies to his garbage heap,' and he was right: a large part of what is known about humanity's past has been divined from contents of the piles and pits of refuse that surrounded our settlements.' His­tory, it turns out, is written not by the strongest but by the messiest, and the history of books is no exception. The few tantalizing glimpses that we have into the formative years of the paged book are due to one particular episode of archaeological dumpster-diving, the heroically dogged excavation of many centuries' worth of one town's refuse that massively expanded our understanding of the literary cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

"Late in 1896, two English archaeologists made the trek from the leafy environs of their alma mater in Oxford to the Egyptian village of El-Bahnasa, a few days south of the ancient capital of Memphis and sited on a branch of the Nile called the Bahr Yusuf or 'Joseph's Canal,' Though adorned here and there with classical ruins, El-Bahnasa had been largely ignored by the many itinerant academics then combing Egypt's ancient landscape, and so Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt were presented with an untouched archaeological sandpit in which to play. They focused their attention on the 'tells,' or mounds, that surrounded the present village, and that had once encircled the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus (pronounced 'oxy-rink-us') on whose ruins the modern settlement had been built.

"Named for the peculiar 'elephant-nosed' fish that swam in the Bahr Yusuf Oxyrhynchus had been Egypt's third-largest city in its heyday after the Alexandrian invasion, a thriving provincial capital with a population of perhaps 20,000. Then, as now, a city of that size pro­duced a correspondingly sizeable amount of trash, much of it in the form of discarded documents, scrolls, and other texts, and it all had to go somewhere. In the case of Oxyrhynchus, that somewhere was an uncultivated strip of desert that lay between the city and the irrigated farms that surrounded it: for centuries the city's inhabitants hauled their baskets of rubbish out to this literal wasteland and dumped them there, safe in the knowledge that the desert's shifting sands would cover up their leavings. The resultant mounds grew and grew over the cen­turies, and the scene that greeted Grenfell, Hunt, and their small army of workers was a landscape littered with tells reaching tens of feet in height. They set to work.

"Eleven months after Grenfell and Hunt had returned to Britain, the pair published their findings in a substantial volume entitled The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Or rather, they published a tiny fraction of their findings: almost as soon as the first spade had bit into the sandy soil, they had pulled out scrolls, sheets, and fragments by the fistful. In their first season of digging alone they discovered a hitherto-unseen verse by the poet Sappho; the earliest known copy of the Gospel of Matthew; a fragment of an unknown book of the New Testament entitled 'The Acts of Paul and Theda' relating the intertwined tales of the Apostle and a virginal devotee; and hundreds more. This rich seam of docu­ments stretched thirty feet down into the earth, preserved there by the protective sands and the arid climate. And though the very oldest materials had been lost-scrolls from the time of the Ptolemies and before lay below the water table and had since rotted away-there were still almost two millennia of documents to extract, record, and pack into biscuit tins for transportation back to England.

"After a few years spent excavating elsewhere, Grenfell and Hunt returned to Oxyrhynchus in the winter of 1903-1904 and would visit again every year until 1907. In the end they recovered half a million separate pieces of papyrus (and, crucially, a few scraps of parchment too), publishing them in yearly volumes until persistent ill health brought Grenfell's career to an end in 1920. Hunt carried on alone until 1934, and a host of other scholars have succeeded him since then: the seventy­-ninth volume of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri was published in 2014, and the current stewards of Grenfell and Hunt's trove expect that the series will number more than one hundred before the last biscuit tin is opened.

"The Oxyrhynchus hoard is the elephant in the room for papy­rologists, and not just because of its name. More than half of all the papyrus scrolls that have survived from the first through the fourth centuries came out of the rubbish heaps around El-Bahnasa, and the sheer weight of evidence continues to exert a powerful pull on those who study ancient writing, literature, and culture. But as intriguing as were the contents of the lost poems, religious tracts, and personal letters that Grenfell and Hunt discovered, their physical forms were just as important. For as long as anyone had cared about the development of the paged book, historians had placed its arrival sometime during the fourth century CE, and, given that the handful of surviving books from that time were all made of parchment, it was assumed that the invention of the paged book had accompanied the decline of the papyrus scroll. It was all very tidy and very plausible, in the way that historical theories usually are before they stumble out into the unobliging mess­iness of the real world."



Keith Houston


The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 Keith Houston
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