Ready, set, decipher

Now’s your chance to help scholars decipher a treasure trove of ancient texts and maybe take part in the discovery of the next lost Greek play or unknown gospel. No knowledge of ancient languages required — just a computer, a bit of spare time, and good pattern recognition skills.

Frangment from the Oxyrynchus Papyri*

The treasure in question is the collection of Oxyrynchus Papyri manuscripts, discovered in 1897 in a trash heap about 100 miles southwest of Cairo. The papyri, mostly fragments, date from the first to the 6th century CE and include Greek, Latin and Arabic documents. Going through these fragments is a huge scholarly undertaking, and while 75 volumes have been published, 85% of the papyri have yet to be catalogued and deciphered. Much of the fragments are the private documents of the vanished city of Oxyrynchus, such as wills and land leases, but scholars have also found the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, and lost poetry by Sappho.

So how to make faster progress?

Enter the AncientLives project, an attempt to use crowdsourcing and computer power to decipher and read these documents. Here’s how it works: go to AncientLives.Org, and click on the transcribe link. A tutorial will show you how to match letters in the manuscript fragment with a Greek alphabet keyboard. When you’re done, your transcription will be part of a searchable database that can be used to classify the texts.

The hope is that thousands of amateur archeologists will give this a try, just like amateur astronomers did with sister projects like GalaxyZoo and PlanetHunters.

(Via Paleojudaica.)

*Image credit: Wikipedia. Public domain.


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One Response to Ready, set, decipher

  1. anon says:

    They would have even better success using fragments as captchas and letting spammers decipher it ;)

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