British and Italian excavations at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt unearthed several thousand papyri (and parchments), mostly inscribed in Greek, but also including texts 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. They are an unusually complete record of the town's culture, society, and economy and form one of the largest and most important groups of texts from Roman Egypt.
The excavation of papyri at Oxyrhynchus began In 1897, under the direction of Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt for the Egypt Exploration Fund. The great success of this first season, in which thousands of papyri were found, led Grenfell and Hunt to continue digging from 1903 through 1907. Oxyrhynchus was excavated by Italian archaeologists for the Società per la Ricerca dei Papiri intermittently between 1910 and 1934, which resulted in additional papyrus finds. Most of the papyri from the British excavations were found in ancient rubbish dumps and latrines, whereas the papyri from the Italian excavations came from the town itself. The archaeological contexts of the Oxyrhynchus papyri remain largely unpublished, but the papyri themselves have been the object of extensive publication efforts: Greek and Latin texts from the British excavations have regularly appeared in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 (1898–the present, or sixty-one volumes). Papyri from the Italian excavations were published as Papiri greci e latini (1910–1979). In addition, individual Oxyrhynchus papyri have been published in monographs and journal articles.
The contents of the Oxyrhynchus papyri span an enormous range of literary and nonliterary production. The initial goal of the excavation of Oxyrhynchus concentrated on the discovery of Greek literary papyri. In addition to known Greek literature, the Oxyrhynchus papyri have yielded hundreds of fragments of “new” texts by known authors: Sappho, Euripides, Sophocles (including his satyr play The Trackers), Menander, Lysias, Hyperides, Callimachus, and Chariton (to name a few), along with anonymous poems, plays, orations, grammars, and scholia. The Oxyrhynchus papyri include fragments of numerous philosophical, rhetorical, and historical works, including the so-called Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, published separately (McKechnie and Kern, 1988), which chronicles the events of 396–395 BCE. Scientific, astronomical, astrological, mathematical, medical, and magical works are also represented. In addition to this great assemblage of literary material, the Oxyrhynchus papyri include an extraordinary wealth of documentary, nonliterary papyri: official documents, legal contracts, wills, accounts, lists, private letters—the majority of Roman date and in Greek, with a smaller (but significant) number in Latin. Papyri from the Roman period document the importance of Egyptian cults at Oxyrhynchus and also attest to a significant Jewish presence there. [See Cult.] Many important Early Christian texts come from Oxyrhynchus, including fragments of biblical manuscripts and documentary evidence. An important group of Byzantine Greek papyri comes from Oxyrhynchus: the papers of the Apion family, who owned the best attested of the large Byzantine estates in Egypt. Coptic and Arabic papyri from Oxyrhynchus, almost entirely unpublished, include documentary, literary, and magical texts.
- Grenfell, Bernard P., et al. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. 61 vols. to date. London, 1898–. Ongoing series in which are published Greek and Latin papyri from the Grenfell and Hunt excavations, with text, commentary, and English translations of most papyri.
- Hunt, Arthur S., et al. Select Papyri. 3 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1950–1956. Handy and accessible anthology of Greek and Latin papyri, including many from Oxyrhynchus, with text and English translation of facing pages. Volume 1 contains private documents, volume 2 public documents, and volume 3 literary fragments.
- Montserrat, Dominic, et al. “Varia Descripta Oxyrhynchita.” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 31 (1994): 11–80. First installment of a larger project to publish the Oxyrhynchus “descripta,” papyri that were only briefly described and not fully published in the early volumes of The Oxyrynchus Papyri.
- Turner, Eric G. Greek Papyri: An Introduction. 2d ed. Oxford, 1980. Standard introduction to Greek papyrology, with much useful information on the Oxyrhynchus papyri and their context as well as an extensive bibliography.
- Turner, Eric G. “The Graeco-Roman Branch.” In Excavating in Egypt: The Egypt Exploration Society, 1882–1982, edited by T. G. H. James, pp. 161–178. Chicago, 1982. Concise account of the Grenfell and Hunt excavation of Oxyrhynchus papyri for the Egypt Exploration Fund and their subsequent publication history.
Terry G. Wilfong