Zooniverse, the citizen-science web portal that asks users to identify lunar craters and spot merging galaxies, now brings crowd-sourced research to the humanities with its Ancient Lives project, in which casual visitors scour images of papyrus fragments, teasing out Greek letters that spell the lives of people who lived in Egypt between the ages of Alexander and Jesus.
The papyrus manuscripts come from the rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus, a city that flourished along the Nile between the 4th century BC and the Muslim invasion of Egypt in the 7th century AD. In the wake of Alexander’s conquest, Egypt was culturally Greek, and the discarded writing of Oxyrhynchus include lost texts of the great playwrights and poets and early versions of the Gospels, as well as a host of everyday ephemera–contracts, invoices, love letters, and magical spells–that offer an astonishing wealth of insight into the ancient social world.
Visitors to Ancient Lives are given an image of a piece of Greek-scrawled papyrus, broken and indistinct, and then use a suite of tools to mark, identify, and measure the text they find. With nearly 500,000 active members, Zooniverse offers a formidably scaled workforce for citizen scholarship.
The work of sorting out the textual puzzles of Oxyrhynchus has long been the focus of painstaking scholarship. Papyrus chips and breaks easily, fragmenting texts into numerous disconnected bits. Add to this the vagaries of ancient Greek dialects and writing systems that have evolved and changed down the centuries; the skill and hard-won knowledge needed to sort through the mess, a discipline called paleography, has long been the province of the very few.
That Zooniverse proposes to open this work up to casual netizens to whom the Greek alphabet is, well, all Greek, is as dubious as it is tantalizing. It becomes a question less of scholarship and more of pattern recognition. You don’t need to know the difference between theta and zeta to see the difference on papyri. Zooniverse seems up to the task, however; through its debut project, Galaxy Zoo, users have made some 60 million classifications of galaxies, adding to our knowledge of the structure and life of these massive star clusters throughout the universe.
Whether this army of letter-spotters can sort out the stories of Oxyrhynchus remains to be seen. But the project already underlines the curious, cosmic relatedness of human lives and things with galaxies, planets, and the elemental stuff of the universe. Like the stars in the sky, letters are both wondrously individual and deeply connected by pattern and process, tied into families and societies. Zooniverse offers a bracing proposition: Although shattered by time and change, the universe is an open book; we all can help to read the stories it contains.