Review of POxy : Oxyrhynchus Online

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POxy : Oxyrhynchus Online

The Marburg papyrologist Hans-Albert Rupprecht has written: "Im Rahmen der Altertumswissenschaft gilt die Papyrologie als die am besten organisierte Disziplin." 1 Probably few would want to dispute that such is and indeed has long been the case. That is one of its particular strengths; and has, one could argue, at least contributed to one of its major weaknesses.

That this status of 'best-organized' subfield within classical studies extends also to the application of digital technology may be less broadly recognized. It is nonetheless now probably the case. And whereas those printed tools which did so much to facilitate and, yes, help organize papyrological work from the very beginning of this century were naturally enough European -- and especially German -- contributions (e.g. the Archiv für Papyrusforschung, 1900-...; the Berichtigungsliste, 1913-...; the Sammelbuch, 1915-...; the Namenbuch, 1922, + Onomasticon; the Wörterbuch, 1925-...; the Bibliographie papyrologique, 1932-...), the large-scale entry into the computerized era has been more an American initiative. After the beginnings of systematic digital imaging at the University of Michigan (from 1991), the project at Duke for cataloguing and imaging the entire papyrus collection (www access since 1995) and comparable undertakings at other institutions, the placing (by Duke) on the Internet of the Checklist of editions, but most importantly the availability of the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri on CD (first in 1988) and on the Perseus website -- the big step came with the organization, funding, and actual first phase (from 1996) of the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS).

APIS is a project of six US universities "to integrate in a 'virtual' library the holdings from their collections (and collections that might want to follow in the future) through digital images and detailed catalog records that will provide information pertaining to the external and the internal characteristics of each papyrus, corrections to previously published papyri, and republications,"2 and one which hopes to expand quickly both nationally and internationally -- eventually to achieve comprehensive coverage of existing papyrus collections. This virtual library is to be freely available on the Internet. APIS and related projects (one could already mention the Heidelberger Gesamtverzeichnis, reviewed elsewhere in BMERR) will, it is to be hoped, lead to a logical extension of what I have above called one of the "strengths" of the papyrological field. But they can also bring the added benefit of eliminating -- or at least mitigating -- the concomitant "weakness" (that of exclusivity/isolation).

Neither the Egypt Exploration Society nor Oxford University is at present a partner in the APIS consortium. Nonetheless, the website here under review, "POxy : Oxyrhynchus Online" (hereafter: "POxy"), shares certain objectives with APIS, was inspired by it, and has adopted some of the guidelines and basic technical standards developed by APIS. The principal purpose of POxy is simply stated: To offer free access on the www, for purposes of study and instruction, to high-quality images of all papyri published to date in the printed volumes of the Oxyrhynchus series.3 At the moment, only four volumes, LIX-LXII, have been completed. It is the intention "to continue imaging upward through the current volume (65) keeping pace with successive volumes, then work backward through volumes previously published."4 Now freely available via Internet are therefore the digital images of papyrus-numbers 3963-4132 and 4301-4351. These include fragments of new elegiac poems by Simonides (no.3965), as well as parts of Aeschines (29 numbers), Demosthenes (24 numbers), Thucydides (13 numbers), various pieces of Menander and Euripides, a fair number of mythographic texts, and 111 official and private documents from the Roman and "Byzantine" periods (the term Byzantine being used by papyrologists to include what others call late antiquity). An advantage of the website is that every papyrus from a volume is imaged, whereas the printed volumes failed to include photographs of many -- especially documentary -- items. (The numbers 4133-4300, astronomical texts, have been reserved for publication outside the series and are not yet imaged in POxy.)

The full images (in color, 150 dpi JPEG format, made through the glass with a Fuji/PowerPhase digital camera and filtered "for increased contrast") magnify to somewhat more than twice life-size on a normal, 72 dpi computer screen. The text is in general easier to read than on the plates in the printed volumes, thanks also partly to the use of muted backlighting. Of course there is a price that had to be paid for this good legibility: the images are of little value for judging the surface texture, fiber structure, or other physical aspects of the papyri. In the case of unusually dark or stained papyri and in that of the very few parchment scraps (e.g. no.4018), there is, however, little noticeable difference in ease of legibility between the images on the website and the photos (black-&-white; normally life-sized but occasionally reduced) in the printed volumes. The quality of POxy's images compares favorably with that offered on other www-sites, though I consider the images in at least the Duke Papyrus Archive (in GIF; with both 150 dpi and 72 dpi scans of each item) to be noticeably better, certainly if one is interested also in judging the current physical condition of the papyrus remains.

For archival purposes, the Oxyrhynchus project has made a 600 dpi TIFF image of each papyrus. Such high-resolution images of specific items may be requested from the CSAD. (When such a request is made, the item in question will then also be made available, out of the normal sequence, on the POxy site [see there under "Requests we're handling" -- showing at the moment only P.Oxy.3522 and P.Oxy.2820].) As Nisbet makes clear, the images normally supplied as part of the web pages are not of full archival quality (though he unfortunately at one point refers to the website itself as "a growing archive of high-quality images" [my italics]). The papyrus images on the site are, in general, copyright by the Egypt Exploration Society, but may be freely used (though not re-published) "for teaching and research purposes."

Access to the images is via the "TOC engine" (, presented in three frames side-by-side -- of which the largest is a reproduction of what in the printed volumes of The Oxyrhynchus papyri are called the "tables of papyri" (not the same as their tables of "contents"), here seen one above the other, and comprising the well-known three columns: papyrus number, a very brief indication of content or document-type, and dating. The two narrow vertical frames to the left are for navigating/browsing within the at present 64 volumes (4441 papyri) by respectively volume-number and papyrus-number. Unfortunate is that for many volumes the tables have not yet been entered. At this writing, volumes I-XVIII (nos.1-2207; published 1898-1941) and LIX-LXIV (nos.3963-4441; published 1992-1997) were already filled in. (Oddly enough, vol. LXV, though long out, still has its contents shown only at another location on the site: Note also that there is a separate "sawn-off" TOC engine exclusively for those volumes already imaged.) Clicking on a papyrus number brings up a thumbnail image (or set of images) of that papyrus, accompanied by a bit of additional information (e.g. name of editor; location) and leading -- through clicking on the thumbnail -- to the full 150 dpi image. Each of these last two steps causes a new browser copy to be opened (now a total of four separate POxy windows on your desktop if you came in via the main POxy page). On the pages with the thumbnails for the documentary papyri, a link has been included to the Greek text in the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri on the Perseus website. Somewhat irritatingly, the fragment numbering within a papyrus item, as assigned in the printed volumes, is nowhere included. This has therefore to be checked in the printed volumes (which in many cases haven't illustrated the papyrus in question). POxy incorporates none of the translations, notes, or indexing from the hard-copy volumes. There are also -- at least as yet -- no cataloguing records (a vital aspect of the APIS approach).

If the images and "TOC"-browser form the (growing) heart of this site, they are by no means all that it has to offer. On the site contents page ( one finds internal links to brief background information on Oxyrhynchus itself; to project information; to a copy of the 1974 (new version promised) "location-lists" for Oxyrhynchus -- with e.g. P. Fayum and P.Hibeh vol. l -- papyri published prior to 1969 and then distributed to institutions other than Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, and including indications of published photos; to the special feature "Athenians at Plataea?: a case study" (attempting to clarify a reading, by means of digital enhancements, in P.Oxy. LIX 3965, Fr.2 [called Fr.1 by Nisbet], line 21); and to a selection of external papyrological and other links.

By far the most extensive and interesting added feature is an online version of the exhibit "Oxyrhynchus: a city and its texts" (held in the summer of 1998 at the Ashmolean Museum), accompanied by information on the British Academy Symposium under the same title, organized to mark the centenary of the published Oxyrhynchus papyri series. Included in this well-produced virtual exhibition (starting-point is are images of three dozen or so further Oxyrhynchus papyri, with explanatory text -- and a great deal of other textual and image material grouped under the headings Introduction / The site / Excavation and finds / Daily life / A millennium of documents / After Grenfell and Hunt / Scribes and scholars / Material culture. Unfortunately, it would go far beyond the space allowed for this review if I were to try to do full justice to this feature of the POxy site. I highly recommend that the reader have a look for himself; the virtual exhibition is something which could easily be put to use in classics courses.

The POxy sidebar also gives access (in the footer frame) to the scanty beginnings of a papyrological glossary, or "guide to papyrologese" (click on "Jargon"), a very rudimentary "Help" file, a rubric for "Site news," a short list of credits, and an abbreviated list of external links. There is also a form for user feedback.

This is a website which made an impressive beginning now more than a year ago and clearly held much promise. Unfortunately it seems that nothing has happened with it in the last half year or so. Vol. LXI images were apparently added last August (see, and vol. L XII some time later, but the "Site last updated: 05/98" indication has not been changed. Various parts are now out of synch with each other, the news section gives nothing more recent than a year ago, some external links are broken. Certain listed features of the site (e.g. "Conserving the Oxyrhynchus papyri", "Working with the papyri") are still not yet online. Let us hope that resources will soon at least allow a steady addition of further Oxyrhynchus volumes. One of the most interesting of the whole series is next in line, vol. LXIII (see Bagnall's review in CR n.s. 48 (1998), p. 151-153; the printed volume illustrates only eight of these 49 papyri!). The printed series is destined to carry on for several more decades, but systematic imaging of the pre-1992 volumes (and of course filling in the tables of papyri on POxy for vols. XIX-LVIII), though more problematic -- many of the papyri being outside Oxford, and some even of now uncertain location -- is of at least equal importance.

The emphasis given to the Oxyrhynchus exhibition and other background material, the design of the site (note the winking and bubbling Oxyrhynchus "fishies" which help in navigating), and the chatty language used, suggest that POxy aims to make the world of papyrology more appealing and accessible to a broader public than that of specialists or even classicists in general. In this respect it has much in common with the papyrological sites of numerous American institutions (many of which -- unlike the Egypt Exploration Society through POxy -- plan to make freely available digital images, with standardized cataloguing, of even the as yet unpublished and unstudied material in their collections). Of fundamental importance to their APIS project is not only that its new integrated Internet system will greatly facilitate the work of the papyrologist, but also that it will render easier (and will thus encourage) the use of papyrological materials and tools by all those who study and teach classical antiquity in its various aspects, and that it will increase the awareness of and interest in papyrus studies among the educated public at large.5

Many papyrologists have the feeling that their discipline, while developing these last hundred years into an unusually well-organized research area for a small group of specialists, with their own particular techniques, instrumentarium, and terminology, has understandably acquired -- not in the last place by virtue of such organization and formalization -- among outsiders the image of a "hortus conclusus," a mysterious realm to which even other classicists cannot easily penetrate and in fact to which they need pay little heed.6 Perhaps there are still a few papyrologists who prefer it that way, but most today realize that this is in the interest neither of papyrology nor of the study of antiquity as a whole and may even threaten the survival of the specialization within academia. Digitalization and the Internet have been seen as a golden opportunity to enhance the awareness, protection and utilization of the papyrological heritage (and the papyrological discipline). Though not quite the oldest papyrological series still being published, The Oxyrhynchus papyri is surely the best known, and perhaps the most important. We should be grateful that such an attractive and ambitious beginning has been made to rendering these manuscripts accessible, and their significance more broadly known, via the Internet.


1 Kleine Einführung in die Papyruskunde (Darmstadt : Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994), p. 24. (Return to text.)

2 On APIS, see Roger S. Bagnall, "Imaging of papyri: a strategic view", Literary and linguistic computing 12 (1997), p. 153-154; and his grant proposal 'narrative' at I quote above the wording from the project description page at the University of Michigan: (Return to text.)

3 The Oxyrhynchus papyri / published for the British Academy by the Egypt Exploration Society. - Pt. 1 (1898) [ed. with translations and notes by Bernard P. Grenfell & Arthur S. Hunt] - .... - London : The British Academy [orig.: the Egypt Exploration Fund], 1898-.... - (Graeco-Roman memoirs). - ISSN 0306-9230. (Return to text.)

4 Quoted from a posting by Dirk Obbink to the Papy discussion-list on 4 June 1998: see Papy archive at (Return to text.)

5 See Bagnall (cited above in note 2). (Return to text.)

6 See especially Jean Bingen, "La papyrologie, d'avant-hier à demain", in Proceedings of the 20th International congress of papyrologists, Copenhagen, 23-29 August 1992 / coll. by Adam Bülow-Jacobsen (Copenhagen : Museum Tusculanum Press, 1994), p. 42-47; and Bagnall's 'narrative' mentioned above in note 2. Also: Peter van Minnen's more ideological article, "The century of papyrology (1892-1992)", BASP 30 (1993), p. 5-18; Italo Gallo, Greek and Latin papyrology (transl. by Maria Rosaria Falivene and Jennifer R. March. - London : Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, 1986) (Classical handbook ; 1), p. 94-97 ("Prospects for papyrology"); and Theodore Brunner's words in the same volume as Bingen's paper (above), p. 604 and 606. (Return to text.)

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