a town in Middle Egypt, on the western bank of the Bahr Yusuf (28°32′N, 30°40′E). Oxyrhynchus was called Pr-mḏd in ancient Egyptian; in Coptic, Pemdje; and in Arabic, al-Bahnasa. It has become best known for the extensive papyrus finds from the Greco-Roman period. First attested in the New Kingdom, little is known about this town until the later Third Intermediate Period and the Saite dynasty, when it was described as the capital of the nineteenth Upper Egyptian nome. In the Late period, both the town and its district came to be identified with the fish of the genus Oxyrhynchus, which was revered there. The town increased in importance as an administrative and cultural center during the Greco-Roman period, eventually becoming the capital of the late Roman province of Arcadia; it was, for a time after the division of the empire, known as Justinianopolis, after Justinian (483–565 CE), the Byzantine emperor. The activities of the population of Roman and late antique Oxyrhynchus have become known from the thousands of papyri found at the site. Oxyrhynchus continued to exist well after the Muslim conquest of the seventh century CE, had already begun to decline by then, and the site was abandoned by the Mamluk period.

Although Oxyrhynchus was an important city and a district capital, little of the town itself has survived. Papyri attest to many features of the layout and topography of Oxyrhynchus: public buildings, gymnasia, the theater, temples (and later churches), baths, and residential structures are frequently mentioned, and individual quarters and even streets are named. Little of this information can be matched, however, with the archaeological remains. When formal excavation of the site began at the end of the nineteenth century, most of the stone buildings had long since been plundered for reuse, while the activities of sebakh-diggers and antiquities hunters had turned the extensive quarters of mud-brick structures into a confused mound of rubble. Excavators concentrated primarily on the recovery of papyri from the rubbish dumps and debris of the site. The earliest excavations were carried out in 1897 by Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt for the Greco-Roman Branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) in London; this first season led to the discovery of thousands of papyri, and Grenfell and Hunt continued their excavations at Oxyrhynchus from 1903 through 1907. Oxyrhynchus was subsequently excavated by Guilio Farina for the Società per la Ricerca dei Papiri, from 1910 to 1913, and later by Evaristo Breccia from 1927 through 1934 for the same institution, resulting in additional papyrus finds. William Matthew Flinders Petrie worked at the site in 1922, in the Late Roman-era cemeteries and in the Roman theater. Both British and Italian excavators at Oxyrhynchus made notes on surviving archaeological remains, but much of their work has remained unpublished. Extensive digging at the site by local inhabitants, however, has yielded papyri and other artifacts, including the series of life-size funerary statues of the late Roman period now in the Rijksmusem van Oudheden, in Leiden, the Netherlands. Although active excavation is no longer being carried out on the site, the Greco-Roman Branch of the Egypt Exploration Society has continued to publish papyri from its excavations, and plans are underway for a special publication to mark the hundredth anniversary of British work at Oxyrhynchus.

In terms of textual evidence, Oxyrhynchus is perhaps the best-documented site of Greco-Roman Egypt, because of the enormous numbers of papyri excavated there. British and Italian excavations at Oxyrhynchus unearthed several thousand papyri (as well as texts on other mediums), mostly written in Greek, but also in Latin, Coptic, Demotic, and Arabic. The Oxyrhynchus papyri range in date from the Ptolemaic through Early Islamic periods, but the majority come from the Roman period and present an unusually complete record of the culture, society, and economy of the town. The archaeological contexts of the Oxyrhynchus papyri are known in a general way: most of the papyri from the British excavations were found in ancient rubbish dumps, while papyri from the Italian excavations came from the town itself. The papyri have been the object of extensive publication efforts: Greek and Latin texts from the British excavations have regularly appeared in the series The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, from 1898 to the present; papyri from the Italian excavations were published in fifteen volumes as Papiri greci e latini, from 1912 to 1979. In addition, hundreds of Oxyrhynchus papyri in Greek have been published individually in monographs and journal articles; the Demotic, Coptic, and Arabic papyri found during the British and Italian excavations, however, remain largely unpublished.

The contents of the Oxyrhynchus papyri span an enormous range of literary and nonliterary texts. The British excavations initially concentrated on the discovery of Greek literary papyri; in addition to known Greek literature, the Oxyrhynchus papyri have yielded hundreds of fragments of “new” Greek texts by known authors, along with anonymous poems, plays, orations, grammars, and scholia. They also included, in Greek, fragments of numerous philosophical, rhetorical, and historical compositions; there were as well scientific, astronomical, astrological, mathematical, medical, and magical texts. In Greek, with a smaller (but significant) number in Latin, documentary texts included official documents, legal contracts, wills, accounts, lists, private letters; the majority of these were of Roman date. Papyri from the Roman period also documented the importance of both Egyptian and Hellenistic cults at Oxyrhynchus, and they attested to a significant Jewish presence. Many important early Christian texts came from Oxyrhynchus, including fragments of biblical manuscripts, hymns, and documentary texts. Documentary texts from the later periods have attested to a localized system of dating—the so-called eras of Oxyrhynchus. An important archive of Byzantine period papyri from Oxyrhynchus are the papers of the Apion family, documents pertaining to the running of a large estate in late antique Egypt. Demotic, Coptic, and Arabic papyri from Oxyrhynchus include documentary, literary, and magical texts.

Bibliography

  • Grenfell, Bernard P., and Arthur S. Hunt et al., eds. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Graeco-Roman Memoirs. London, 1898- present. Ongoing series (65 volumes to date) of Greek and Latin papyri from the British excavations; descriptions, text, and critical apparatus provided for most papyri, as well as an English translation.
  • Krüger, Julian. Oxyrhynchos in der Kaiserzeit: Studien zur Topographie und Literaturrezeption. Frankfurt a. M., 1990. Two unrelated studies of the topography of Roman Oxyrhynchus and the role of literature in the intellectual life there; useful but incomplete and with little synthesis of the extensive material for both subjects.
  • Montserrat, Dominic. “Oxyrhynchus.” In The Dictionary of Art, edited by Jane Turner, vol. 23, pp. 692–693. New York, 1996. Useful summary with bibliography.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. The Tombs of the Courtiers and Oxyrhynkos. London, 1925. Publication of Flinders Petrie's work at the site.
  • Rowlandson, Jane. Landowners and Tenants in Roman Egypt: The Social Relations of Agriculture in the Oxyrhynchite Nome. Oxford, 1996. Study of agriculture and social relations in Oxyrhynchus and environs; important work for agriculture of Roman Egypt in general.
  • Schneider, Hans D. Beelden van Behnasa: Egyptische kunst uit de Romeinse keisertijd 1e-3e eeuw na Chr. Zutphen, 1982. Publication of the funerary sculptures from the Oxyrhynchus cemeteries; also contains archival views of the site.
  • Turner, Eric. “The Graeco-Roman Branch.” In Excavating in Egypt: The Egypt Exploration Society, 1882–1982, edited by T. G. H. James, pp. 160–178. Chicago, 1982. Detailed survey of the British activities at Oxyrhynchus.
  • Turner, Eric. “Roman Oxyrhynchus.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 38 (1952), 78–93. Excellent survey of what was known in 1952 of the layout of Oxyrhynchus and its intellectual life; still extremely useful and interesting reading.

Terry G. Wilfong