"Some report elsewhere whatever is told them; the measure of fiction always increases, and each fresh narrator adds something to what he has heard," wrote Ovid. And he never even met a newspaperman. The recent press coverage of a reported discovery of new classical texts provided proof that journalists and scholars rarely speak the same language, to the frustration of both.
The confusion began when London's Independent reported that a team of papyrologists at Oxford University, along with scientists from Brigham Young University, had in the past few days begun to make astonishing discoveries. A technology called multispectral imaging could uncover a "classical holy grail" or launch a "second Renaissance" by deciphering the enormous trove of ancient manuscripts discovered at Oxyrhynchus in the Nile Valley a century ago, according to the article by David Keys and Nicholas Pyke.
Other press, from Asia to America, soon picked up on the article. Slate.com explained multi-spectral imaging and Salon.com praised the rescue of lost works from "the rubbish bins of history." By Wednesday, National Public Radio had spoken to Dirk Obbink, the director of the project, about the possibility of discovering new writings by Sophocles and the recently uncovered poem by the satiric poet Archilochus, credited as creator of the iamb.
These reports in the press drew the interest of scholars, but questions were unanswered. After all, this technology was hardly new - it's been available for a decade. And researchers had been applying it to manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus for the past few years. It should not have been surprising that the Oxyrhynchus researchers had discovered new classical works: That is what they do, having uncovered almost 70 volumes worth of fragments in the past century.
Skeptical reactions were posted on the technology and computing Web site Arstechnica.com. An online discussion for biblical scholars, Deinde.org, chastised the press: "It certainly does seem that the press has been exaggerating the issue though (not that that is a surprise)." And classical scholars The New York Sun spoke to were puzzled about what had really happened, waiting to hear from Mr. Obbink to make things clear. This he has, to some degree, attempted to do. "It could be a small renaissance," he told the Sun from Oxford last week, before leaving for Berkeley, where he would present some of the recent results in the course of a paper on the newly discovered Archilochus poem.
In a message to the online listserv for papyrologists, Mr. Obbink indicated that, though the team has made new discoveries, the Oxyrhynchus researchers - like most scholars - "do not normally announce our findings in advance of publication." He also wrote that the Independent article was "reported enthusiastically, if selectively."
Specifically, the article should not have implied that all the papyri had just been discovered, "only that we made significant (and sufficiently exciting) advances in reading and confirmation of identifications with some." He went on to say that while some pieces were identified for the first time, many others "remain complete mysteries."
For as much as "discovery" may be what the wider world thinks of as news, the work of scholars like Mr. Obbink consists of more laborious but necessary tasks of transcribing, analyzing, confirming, and reconfirming. "Their work is the result of many, many intensive years of hard study of the papyrus texts," said Cornell University classics professor Jeffrey Rusten, who cautioned that scientific breakthroughs, though great, are never a substitute for knowing the language and the texts.
Now filling two rooms at the Sackler Library and a small warehouse outside of Oxford, the collection is thought to contain more than 400,000 fragments. In the course of a century, using available technology or none at all, researchers have managed to publish about 5,000 of those fragments. They have sought out new technology to help them get at the vast number of previously inscrutable or entirely obscured manuscripts. Mr. Obbink speculates that they might be finished publishing the important fragments in perhaps two generations.
Scholars have long speculated what treasures the trove might - or might not - contain. The real question is how to find them, and how to be sure that they are being recorded, translated, and pieced together correctly. Here the technology brought to bear by scientists from Brigham Young and elsewhere is proving invaluable.
"Multispectral imaging" uses filters to capture digital images in difficult ranges of the light spectrum from ultraviolet to infrared. This process was pioneered by NASA and developed for use in analyzing texts at BYU's Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts.
BYU previously had applied this technology to charred manuscripts from Herculaneum and Petra. What is new about its use at Oxford is that it is being applied to "non-carbonized" (noncharred) papyri - that is, those that are faded or otherwise obscured - a much larger class of documents.
"What the technology does," said Columbia University professor of classics and history Roger Bagnall, "is enhance the ink and knock out the background." There are fine differences in the way light bounces off ink, said Mr. Obbink. High-definition digital imaging heightens the contrast to make the ink stand out even if it is sunk deep into the papyrus.
"Previously there was a class of material that you knew there was ink there but you couldn't read it because it was too faint or there was not enough of it," said Mr. Bagnall. By taking enough pictures with different filters on a rotating automatic wheel, the process can locate the best section of the light spectrum for each particular papyrus.
Further technological advances should help push the Oxford researchers' work even further. Together with a team from the University of Kentucky, Oxford scholars are exploring the use of X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging to read rolled-up papyri too delicate to be unrolled.
One important purpose driving the Oxford researchers' first application of this technology was to double-check readings of certain fragments - including the Archilochus and Parthenius fragments. These will be published next month in the 69th volume of Oxyrhynchus fragments.
Newer discoveries - such as fragments of Sophocles's "Epigonoi and Euripides's "Telephus" - will be released in forthcoming volumes over the next few years. The fruits of discoveries made using the multispectral technology - and Mr. Obbink confirmed that they are making them - will make an impact in coming years.
But for those who care, it is surely worth it. As Belle Waring, on the academic group blog Crooked Timber, put it last week: "It's not particularly likely that you've ever had a look at how much Archilochus there is in the world, but let me tell you: ain't a whole lot."
Lost and Found
The contents of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri discovered by Oxford researchers have included everything from "sitcoms of the ancient world all the way to Homer and Sophocles," according to Dirk Obbink: magical spells, steamy novels, marriage contracts, wills, tax receipts, curses, government edicts, and police and coroners' reports. There is even a report of a night watchman making the rounds. Together they offer a cross section of daily life from the second century B.C.E. to the eighth century C.E. "It's a slice of life," Mr. Obbink said.
In recent years, researchers have uncovered Hesiod's genealogical catalog of mortal women with whom the gods slept and produced famous offspring - which Mr. Obbink describes as a kind of "sex history of the gods" - as well as a third-century C.E. fragment of the Book of Revelations, in which the mark of the beast was numbered not as "666" but "636." Forthcoming volumes will include about 14 or 15 lines of Sophocles's lost tragedy "Epigonoi" ("Progeny") and a fragment from Euripides's lost tragedy "Telephus."
The latest volume, to be published in May, includes a previously unknown epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts, as well as a poem about self-loving Narcissus by the Greek poet Parthenius, who inspired Ovid in the "Metamorphosis." It reads, in part:
A cruel heart he had: god-like Narcissus hated them all Until he conceived a love for his own form. Within a spring, he wailed, Delightful as a dream seeing his face: his beauty did he weep Then the boy shed his blood and gave it to the earth to bear.
But the highlight may be about 30 lines from seventh century poet Archilochus that describe an episode prior to the Trojan war in which the Greeks get into trouble by mistaking another city for Troy: "For they thought they were attacking the city of Troy with its high gates but in reality they had their feet on wheat-bearing land of Mysia," Mr. Obbink translated.