Nearly a century back two young scholars from Oxford University, B P Grenfell and A S Hunt set out to excavate a site on the banks of the Nile in Egypt at a time when the tensions between the French and the British over the status of Egypt was particularly acute. Napoleon had already discovered the antiquities of Egypt and had published them in 11 volumes and Joseph Champollion had read the Rosetta's stone thereby unlocking the secrets of Egypt's past. Just at a time when the pursuit of archaeology was changing from a mere collection of antiquities, a la Indiana Jones variety, to a more scientific and systematic analysis of the material remains of the past,the explorers stumbled upon a small village with a Greek name Oxyrhynchos, which roughly translates as the City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish. Here were discovered a treasure trove of documents written on papyri and in the dry desert climate the documents survived for more than 2 thousand years opening the doors to the study not only of Egypt's past but also that of Greek, Latin, Arab and Byzantine literature. For preserved in the desert sands were literally mountains of documents and in the hands of a dedicated team of historians these documents have come to life and along with inscriptions and coins the documents from this site have become the mainstay of ancient history.
A fascinating book has recently been published based on a study of this site. Peter Parsons, a scholar who worked on the site for nearly 50 years has brought out an eminently readable account of the recovery, decipherment and publication of the papyri found at the site. Called City of the Sharp Nosed Fish: Greek Papyri beneath the Egyptian Sand Reveal a Long-Lost World book is a treat to read. This book demonstrates the dedication with which the early pioneers of the discipline of studying ancient documents went about their task. River fever, long bouts of loneliness,physical attacks,a morose work force and a obstructive Cairo administration were only some of the difficulties they faced. Even in the first season of excavation such treasures as a few lost poems of Sappho, odes of Pindar and Horace were found and this discovery along with a second century collection entitled Sayings of Jesus spurred the public interest in the project. Parsons has given us a delightful book.