Today, all that remains of the once-sizable Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus (its Greek name, pronounced “ox-ee-RIN-kus” and meaning “sharp-nosed,” refers to a species of fish in the Nile) is a lone column surrounded by drifting sands, the only relic not carted off and reused by modern builders. In its Roman and Byzantine heyday, however, Oxyrhynchus—located about 200 miles south of Alexandria in Middle Egypt—was an impressive and prosperous place, with colonnaded streets and a theater seating 11,000. The architectural glories of Oxyrhynchus may have been lost forever, but the site has yielded what must be a far more valuable treasure: the richest cache of papyri ever found in Egypt, preserved in the ancient garbage dumps just outside the city.

In 1897, two young British archaeologists, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, assembled a team of local diggers and began to probe the 30-foot-deep rubbish mounds. Soon they had found more papyri than they had ever imagined—and not just official documents, but the kind of everyday papers that are rarely preserved, such as personal letters, shopping lists and tax returns. Excavations at Oxyrhynchus continued through 1934, bringing to light about 50,000 documents in all.

Like the Vindolanda writing tablets from Roman Britain, the Oxyrhynchus papyri offer a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of an ancient town. We learn of a woman named Sabina, who hit another woman, Syra, with a key, injuring her so badly that she stayed in bed for four days; a gift of 1,000 roses and 4,000 narcissi made by a certain Apollonius and Sarapias for the wedding of a friend’s son; and the astrological advice a man named Elis gave to his friend (or client) Carpus in the following letter:

Elis to his most esteemed Carpus, very many greetings. Don’t forget about the order for the three plates, two big ones and [one line missing here]…Meet your friend when the Moon is in Sagittarius, at the fourth hour; it arrives there on 12th Thoth; it is there again also on the 13th and 14th until the seventh hour. At these times meet your friend. Farewell.

Because Oxyrhynchus was a Greek-speaking enclave, most of the papyri found there—including fragments of the New and Old Testaments and literary works by the poets Callimachus and Sappho—are written in Greek, though other ancient languages are represented. To date, scholars have filled 67 volumes in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, published by the Egypt Exploration Society with transcriptions, translations and notes. Many more volumes will be needed to catalogue in full this historical treasure trove.

Further information about Oxyrhynchus can be found on the Web site of the Center for the Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford University (