Help decode ancient Egyptian texts by playing a puzzle game

Want to help transcribe ancient Greek texts from the comfort of your couch? Have no understanding of the Greek language? That's ok! With Egypt Exploration Society and Oxford University's Ancient Lives project, you can contribute to the work of researchers who are digitizing — and eventually decoding — the vast holdings of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, a mysterious pile of Greek papers discovered in an ancient dump outside Egypt. And you can do it just by playing a puzzle game.

What are the Oxyrhynchus Papyri?

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri were found by a group of archaeologists during an expedition that began west of the Nile River in 1896. The two-thousand-year-old documents were preserved on the site of an ancient trash dump near the city of Oxyrynchus, a five day journey south of bustling Memphis in ancient Egypt. The papyri contain manuscripts ranging from religious texts, popular plays from the time period, and marriage certificates, to a loan document in which a sausage maker requests to take out a loan for 9,000 denarri (roughly $200,000 US today).


Time has made the papyri quite brittle, with the vast majority discovered as only crumbled fragments, creating an additional problem for researchers – the fragments not only have to be translated, but pieced back together to tell a larger story. 500,000 individual fragments were recovered in the ten years that the site at Oxyrynchus was excavated, making for hundreds of lifetimes of work. Researchers need to transcribe what's written on the fragments, to aid with faster translation and eventually help them piece the fragments together. That's where you can help.

Recognizing Symbols

If you'd like to become a citizen linguist and help create digital transcriptions of these fragments, first visit the free game Ancient Lives. In it, your job is to decipher the individual Greek letters in a given fragment of papyri. A keyboard with a series of symbols (upper-case and lower-case Greek letters) is presented underneath the scanned papyri fragment you are transcribing. When your mouse moves over a letter on the keyboard, the Greek analog in typical handwriting is shown in order to aid identification. Once you recognize a letter on the papyri, you select the corresponding letter on the keyboard and save the notation. Also, if the papyri is too difficult or faded to decipher, you can save your work and move to another at anytime.


Ancient Lives also offers the opportunity to measure the individual fragments, which will aid in reconstructing them into a larger section, which is possibly the most difficult aspect of putting together the puzzle pieces that are the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.



I have spent a couple of hours on Ancient Lives, and I must admit, it draws you in. The overall approach is different from a lot of the citizen science projects out there, and it plays very much like a puzzle video game. Only a small percentage of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri have been translated and compiled in the 100+ years since they were discovered, so there is plenty of work to do. The manuscripts available on Ancient Lives, once transcribed and translated, will be published and numbered in the Egypt Exploration Society's Greco-Roman Memoirs series.


So get started transcribing! Who knows what ancient secrets your puzzle-solving could eventually uncover?
Images courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society and Oxford University.

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