Excavators find treasure in Egyptian trash heap

University experts are trying to match Greek letters to symbols found on ancient fragments of papyri.
February 09, 2012

 

University of Minnesota students can be a part of discovering history by helping researchers decipher Greek characters on 2,000-year-old fragments of ancient papyri discovered in Egypt.

Their participation could also help develop an algorithm to faster assess data in different disciplines — the sole responsibility of the University in the project.

The team is collaborating with the University of Oxford in the Ancient Lives project to translate papyri preserved in Egypt since about the third century B.C.

The damaged fragments are available online for the public to identify and match Greek letters in order to translate works. About 120,000 people participate internationally.

“You don’t need to know Greek,” said Marco Perale, papyrology and Greek language expert.

Only 30 percent of ancient Egyptian works have surfaced, Perale said. Other literature is alluded to in books or poems but wasn’t copied down by scribes and monks.

Lost works, like a book of poetry by Greek poet Sappho, have been deciphered since the excavation of the papyri from a trash heap in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.

The project has the potential to unveil those treasures as well as develop an algorithm to speed up computers when deciphering data in any discipline.

Matching

Public participation is needed to develop this algorithm — it is the key to moving this project and others like it forward.

“We’re now in a position where we’re drowning in our own data,” said Lucy Fortson, associate professor of physics and astronomy and executive member of Zooninverse, the parent project of Ancient Lives.

She said the consensus algorithm uses human error to assign a confidence level to each letter the public chooses.

Upon comparing that with the translations of experts like Perale, the first draft of the algorithm is 70 to 80 percent accurate each time.

Once there is confidence in the algorithm, Fortson said it could be released on other Zooniverse data, like identifying galaxies and whale sounds, to sort it more quickly.

And humans are necessary to teach the computers how to do that. Humans have the capability to match distorted patterns and shapes, while a computer can’t. Kids as young as 4 or 5 years old, who are just learning how to match things, can participate.

“It’s exactly what that age range is doing,” Fortson said.

Those results are compared with Perale’s translations to perfect the algorithm, which is being developed solely by the University.

As of January, more than 5 million characters had been transcribed since Ancient Lives went live in July 2011, said Nita Krevans, classical and near Eastern studies associate professor. 

A study found that participants actually enjoy helping with research more than watching television, Fortson said.

“We’ve tapped into a very large audience that actually really does care about science and research, and they want meaning in their lives,” she said.

The U’s role

The project combines work from both the classical and near Eastern studies department and the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute and operates under a $250,000 award from the Minnesota Futures Grant program.

For Theresa Chresand, a sophomore Greek major and computer science minor, the project’s application to both disciplines made it “perfect” for her to help out with the research.

She manages an online group just for Minnesotans who are helping with the project.

Besides translating Greek from the papyri, Perale is in charge of website commentary.

Users have the option to search literary texts online and try to determine if what they are deciphering is from a pre-existing text, like some of Greek poet Homer’s work, including the Iliad and the Odyssey.

They can comment on a forum and receive replies from other users or from Perale himself.

Ancient papyri found wrapped on mummified crocodiles

The lost work of Greek authors like Aristotle could be found on the papier mâché covering on the mummy of a crocodile, which is a sacred animal to ancient Egyptians.

The Egypt Exploration Society, a nonprofit foundation, has sponsored the excavation and publication since its beginning. The sites are currently still being excavated.

Census returns depicting the change of population in a village, wedding contracts showing the legal rights of divorced women and letters from a child to his mother asking for money were all types of documents found in Egypt on preserved papyrus fragments.

These documents had been “mushed up, covered with paint and wrapped around crocodiles,” Krevans said. They were also found in trash heaps, like the one in Oxyrhynchus.

Papyrus, an ancient substitute for paper made from a reedy plant, dissolves in water. But because the villages where they were found were “bone dry,” the documents were preserved, Krevans said.

She said the Nile River, which floods once per year, is the main irrigation source for Egyptian agriculture. Because the villages were so far away, these “treasure troves” survived.

Since the trash heaps and mummy coverings were discovered more than a century ago, only 1 percent of a total 500,000 fragments have been deciphered and published between 1898 and last month.

“It’s taken that long to transcribe and edit and interpret and publish 1 percent of the entire collection from Oxyrhynchus,” Fortson said.

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