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Help scientists decipher 'lost' gospel

This papyrus from the 2nd or 3rd century is inscribed with an ink drawing showing the goddess Agnoia (
This papyrus from the 2nd or 3rd century is inscribed with an ink drawing showing the goddess Agnoia (Egypt Exploration Society / Oxford Imaging Papyri Project
A 3rd-century papyrus fragment contains a snippet of text from a non-canonical Christian gospel.
A 3rd-century papyrus fragment contains a snippet of text from a non-canonical Christian gospel.Egypt Exploration Society / Oxford Imaging Papyri Project

Scientists are recruiting thousands of armchair archaeologists to help them decipher a "lost" gospel and other fragments of texts from ancient Egypt.

The Ancient Lives project draws upon the same type of people power that drives citizen-science projects such as Galaxy Zoo, Planet HuntersFoldit and EteRNA. In all these cases, legions of human eyes and brains can do a better job of sifting through massive databases than supercomputers. For this particular project, however, the monster database that needs to be tamed does not consist of sky-survey data or molecular combinations — rather, they're ink letters, scrawled in Greek on centuries-old bits of papyrus.

Oxford University launched Ancient Lives just a couple of days ago, but project leader Chris Lintott told me that more than 400,000 papyrus images have already been served up as of today. "It's been a crazy few days," he said in an email.

Deluge of documents

That's the kind of participation Ancient Lives will need in order to cope with the deluge of documents from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. More than a century ago, archaeologists unearthed piles of papyrus pieces in an ancient rubbish dump near an Egyptian city once known as Oxyrhynchus, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Cairo. The manuscripts have been dated to between the 1st and the 6th century, covering a time when Greek and Roman culture was dominant in Egypt.

This papyrus from the 2nd or 3rd century is inscribed with an ink drawing showing the goddess Agnoia (
This papyrus from the 2nd or 3rd century is inscribed with an ink drawing showing the goddess Agnoia (Egypt Exploration Society / Oxford Imaging Papyri Project

Since its discovery, the treasure trove has yielded up some masterpieces of the age, including the comedies of Menander, the poems of Sappho and the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Thousands of fragments have been cataloged and decoded. The only problem is, there are hundreds of thousands of fragments to go.

"Most of these haven't been read, and they weren't cataloged in what must have been extremely trying conditions in the field," said Lintott, an Oxford physicist and one of the pioneers behind Galaxy Zoo and its Zooniverse spin-offs. "As a result, our professional colleagues have been searching blind for the last century, like trying to do research by randomly selecting books off the Bodleian Library shelves."

University of Minnesota physicist Lucy Fortson, another project leader, said the fragments are completely out of sequence. "It's like if you have thousands of puzzles, take all the pieces and mix them together in one big box. Then you try to put the puzzles together," she said in a news release. "It's an enormous task."

Now the puzzle pieces have been digitized and made available for any Internet user to peruse.

"Until now, only experts could explore this incredible collection," Lintott said in this week's project announcement. "But with so much of the collection unstudied, there's plenty for everyone. We're excited to see what visitors can unearth."

Other leaders of the effort include Oxford's William MacFarlane, the lead developer and designer; James Brusuelas, the team's papyrologist; and Paul Ellis, an imaging specialist who helped digitize the texts. "It's with the digital advancements of our own age that we're able to open up this window into the past, and see a common human experience in that intimate, traditional medium, handwriting," MacFarlane said.

How you can help

The beauty part is that you don't even have to know Greek to help out. The online interface asks only that you compare the letters on each fragment with the shapes displayed on a keyboard. Lintott told me that the current plan calls for each fragment to be checked five times or so, to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds. Think of it as a variant of the "Captcha" type-in-the-phrase system that's used to block spammers.

Another task involves measuring the dimensions of the fragments, to help scholars figure out which fragments go together. You don't need a ruler: A click-and-drag measuring tool does all the work.

The transcribed fragments will be sent over to experts in ancient manuscripts for review, translation and potential publication. Will Internet users get credit for the work they've done? "Absolutely," Lintott said, "as with all Zooniverse projects, we'll take great care to attribute credit correctly."

Among the items recently picked out of the pile are fragments of a previously unknown apocryphal gospel that describes Jesus casting out demons, a lost play by Euripides titled "Melanippe the Wise" and newfound letters attributed to the philosopher Epicurus.

Who knows what else is waiting to be discovered? If you've ever wanted to put on an Indiana Jones fedora and delve into ancient mysteries, here's your chance. This tutorial shows you how the job is done, and this Zooniverse page is where you sign up to participate.

Update for 5:30 p.m. ET Aug. 1: Over the weekend, Oxford papyrologist James Brusuelas sent an email with further details about the juiciest bits of papyri:

"Gospel: In its current edited state, the gospel has not been overtly connected to any other sources. It remains a hot topic amongst historians of religion and Christianity. One must think about how the wider apocryphal (i.e., not included in the accepted canon of biblical texts) and biblical stories of Jesus relate to and inform the very act of casting out demons. Where does this particular narrative fit in the tradition of Jesus' acts? We have the text, we've identified it. Now it has to be studied and debated (that's why this project can be so cool).

"As for Euripides, we have the gist of the mythological story concerning Melanippe, her rape or seduction at the hands of Poseidon and the subsequent birth of twin sons, whom she tries to hide from her father Aeolus. All we know about the play is that it roughly begins as such:

"The children were hidden in a stable and discovered by a herdsman, who thought they were the unnatural offspring of a cow.

"Aeolus is persuaded to kill the twin as unnatural beings.

"Melanippe steps forward to rationally defend the children as the offspring of an unidentified girl.

"We've learned this from other sources that have quoted and given the background story to the myth, such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Aristotle, and Aristophanes.

"This roughly amounts to about 60 lines of the original text; everything pertains to the beginning of the story.

"Why is she wise? Her mother, Hippe, was the daughter of the wise centaur Chiron, the teacher and tutor of such great heroes as Ajax, Achilles, and Jason.

"How does the play unfold? We have no idea. And we don't know what we'll find, but we are waiting to learn how this story turns out."

More about citizen science:

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