Oxford University is enlisting the help of "armchair archaeologists" to help unlock the meaning of ancient texts found in Egypt, some of which contain forgotten Biblical episodes or works by master poets.
Scholars have uploaded hundreds of thousands of images of scraps of papyrus known as the Oxyrhynchus collection, after the Egyptian city where they were discovered (it means City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish). People can transcribe the writings, which are in Greek, using character-recognition tools that are included on the website.
"Online images are a window into ancient lives," said project specialist Paul Ellis.
The fragments of parchment all date from between 500 BC to 1,000 AD and are written in Greek, a testament to the fact that Egypt spent that period under Greek or Roman rule. Researchers on the project have already discovered some gems, including an account of Jesus Christ exorcising demons and lost works by the ancient Greek poet Sappho and dramatists Menander and Sophocles. But much remains to be discovered.
"Many of these papyri have remained unstudied since they were discovered more than a century ago," said James Brusuelas, a Research Associate of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. "Our goal is to increase the momentum by which scholars have traditionally identified known and unknown literary texts, and the private documents and letters that open up a window into the ancient lives of Graeco-Roman Egypt."
They also include some records of more mundane day to day activities in the lives of the city's ancient denizens, including loans and work contracts.