Armchair archaeologists reveal details of life in ancient Egypt

Online volunteers uncover shopping lists, hangover cures and a match-fixing agreement among Oxyrhynchus papyri fragments

People around the world are helping to transcribe more than a half-million ancient documents from the comfort of their sitting rooms, thanks to a major crowd-sourcing project that is revolutionising our understanding of life in Greco-Roman Egypt and how scholars sift through vast quantities of archaeological material. The Ancient Lives project, a collaboration between the University of Oxford, the Egypt Exploration Society, the Citizen Science Alliance and others, asks its 250,000-strong group of online volunteers to review digital scans of papyri fragments from Oxyrhynchus in Upper Egypt. With the help of specialised online tools, they identify Greek letters found on the papyri and this data is then fed to scholars for translation. To mark the fifth anniversary of the project, Dirk Obbink, an associate professor in Papyrology and Greek Literature from the University of Oxford, will present the latest findings of what is being billed as “the world’s largest archaeological project”, at a talk in London tomorrow (1 March).  

The cache of papyri, which dates from the third century BC to the seventh century AD, was discovered in the late 1890s by British archaeologists digging in a rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus (City of the Sharp Nosed Fish), which is approximately 160m south-west of Cairo. By the time the excavation was completed in 1907, 700 boxes of documents had been recovered and shipped to Oxford for study.

The Oxyrhynchus fragments include personal documents such as tax assessments, grocery lists, marriage certificates, horoscopes and wills as well as public edicts, official correspondence and court records. They also contain excerpts of literary works by Sappho, Euripides and Homer as well as a lost tragedy by Sophocles. One fragment offers an alternative account of the death of Narcissus than the one popularised by the Roman poet Ovid. In this rediscovered version of the myth, the son of a river god and nymph does not die of a broken heart but takes his own life.

Some of the more recent discoveries resulting from the Ancient Lives project include tried-and-true ancient remedies for treating haemorrhoids, hangovers and cataracts as well as juicier reports, including an agreement, from 12BC, for a young wrestler to throw a match for the right price. Several literary works have also been uncovered including a romantic tale involving a king called Sesonchosis. A lost gospel in which Jesus casts out demons from possessed men has also been discovered.

The London talk, which is being held at the Royal Geographical Society, is organised by the World Monuments Fund Britain and is the first in a series of talks the fund is planning for this spring and summer.

• For more information on the talk, see; for more on the Ancient Lives project, see