After Grenfell and Hunt

Rendel Harris (1852–1941)

Among those involved in the post-Grenfell & Hunt history of Oxyrhynchus was the Biblical scholar Rendel Harris, who acquired a quantity of papyri there in the winter of 1922–3. These papyri and others were presented to Woodbrooke College in Birmingham, and a first volume of texts from the collection was published by Enoch Powell in 1936. A second volume, the work of several contributors, came out in 1985. Both of these volumes contain much Oxyrhynchus material with close links to papyri in the Oxyrhynchus collection in Oxford.

Flinders Petrie (1853–1942): Letter to Hunt

The noted archaeologist Flinders Petrie spent some time at Oxyrhynchus in 1922, and sent this atmospheric letter to Hunt. He writes: 

‘We have been here three weeks, after clearing some hundreds of 1st dynasty tombs at Abydos.

‘We are in the old palm grove [no doubt the setting for the excavators’ house], immensely changed by a railway running across the Bahr Yusuf, & a sebakh [the ancient site's soil, prized as fertilizer] line going round the back of the town, with shrieking trains going out in the dark before dawn.

‘Sebakh has been carried enormously, & much papyrus found. I am buying up all I can get, especially every scrap of uncial literary; feeling my way as to values by not always offering enough for Byzantine accounts &c. There are three or four literary pieces of 100 words or so. As these are bought, we shall have all to London. Would you be open to looking over all the pieces & giving us — as a matter of business — a report on them in June? There is St. Louis University rampant to get some to edit, but if you wish to publish any piece specially I hope you would do so.

‘I am trying here to get some idea of the place, planning it, and working out the great colonnade (over 27 columns long) & the immense abbey, to get some sense of it; also the mound-tombs of III-VIth cent. away to the north.

‘I hear that the best papyri are found about 20 ft down in the high mounds. We shall not try to do anything exhaustive, but rescue a little of the architecture & plans before they all vanish. I am waiting to hear some reports on sites further south, which might be more in my line.’

Petrie published the results of this visit in Tombs of the Courtiers and Oxyrhynkhos (1925). We hear no more of the ‘immense abbey’: it may be that this was an early misconception of the structure that proved to be the great theatre.

The Italian Excavations

Three years after Grenfell and Hunt left Oxyrhynchus for the last time, an Italian team under Ermenegildo Pistelli (1862–1927) resumed their work, continuing until 1913. Pistelli’s published letters from Egypt contain interesting anecdotes about the site. Evaristo Breccia (1876–1967) directed the resumption of the work between 1927 and 1934, and it was in this period that it was possible to re-locate the tomb of Sheikh Ali Gamman and thus complete the excavation of this particularly rich rubbish mound, begun but not finished by Grenfell and Hunt. Consequences of this work were not only the quantity of Oxyrhynchus papyri in general now in Florence, but in particular the number of texts of which parts are in Oxford and parts in Florence because of the shared work on Kôm Gamman. A sequence of photographs shows the rapidly disappearing Kôm Gamman. The first volume of Papiri della Società Italiana (1912) derives in large part from these excavations.

Edgar Lobel (1889–1982)

Edgar Lobel was the giant of the literary papyri of Oxyrhynchus. His association with the collection spanned a period of nearly seventy years, from the days of Grenfell and Hunt to the current generation of editors. His contributions of meticulous and matchless scholarship adorn the pages of volume after volume produced during that long period; nine of them carry his name alone. For decades he acted as curator of the major part of the collection, in his room in The Queen’s College in Oxford, until purpose-built accommodation for it became available within the Ashmolean Museum. The austere impression he gave on first acquaintance belied his rich store of anecdotes and his deliciously wicked sense of humour.

Colin Roberts (1909–1990)

Colin Roberts, formerly Lecturer in Papyrology in Oxford, contributed to The Oxyrhynchus Papyri principally during the period 1941–1957. During many years as Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press, he maintained his interest in the subject, publishing a further small group of theological texts in 1982 and taking an active part in committee work.

John Barns (1912–1974)

John Barns was at the time of his death Professor of Egyptology at Oxford, attached to The Queen’s College like Grenfell, Hunt and Edgar Lobel. His career had fluctuated between papyrology and Egyptology, and he published substantial contributions to The Oxyrhynchus Papyri in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as acting as unofficial curator for a substantial part of the collection.

Eric Turner (1911–1983)

The collection’s debt to Eric (later Sir Eric) Turner is enormous. Lecturer in the University of Aberdeen before the Second World War, later Professor of Papyrology at University College London, it was his energy that kept work on the collection going during a difficult postwar period, and his vision that led to the establishment of the work on the collection as a major project of the British Academy. He was senior General Editor of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri for nearly thirty years and as many volumes; a dozen of them contain publications under his own name. From volume XXXVI in 1970, John R. Rea (1933–) and Peter J. Parsons (1936–2022), both Lecturers in Papyrology at Oxford, joined Turner as General Editors, and they continued at the helm in the subsequent years.

Financial and Scientific Developments

Work on the Oxyrhynchus collection received new impetus in 1966 with the establishment of the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus Committee and the adoption of its work as a major research project of the British Academy. This coincided with the creation of new working space for the papyrologists and storage space for the papyri within the Ashmolean Museum, a happy combination which has facilitated the continued regular annual production of volumes of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Scientific and technical developments have further aided research on the collection. It is now possible to conduct word-searches through a millennium and a half of Greek literature and through most of the published Greek documentary papyri via databases such as the TLG and Difficult script on a papyrus can be enhanced by more and more sophisticated imaging, including infra-red and ultra-violet examination, to complement the binocular microscopes the project has had for decades.