"My first impressions on examining the site were not very favourable," wrote Bernard Grenfell in December 1896. "The rubbish mounds were nothing but rubbish mounds.” Despite this initial impression, Grenfell and Hunt persisted and in the rubbish heaps, uncovered over 500,000 papyri describing the now best documented provencial town the Roman Empire, Oxyrhynchus (Pr-Medjed in ancient Egypt; Al Bahnasa in modern Egypt).
Team member Lincoln Blumell is a world recognized expert in the Oxyrhynchus papyri and a short three hour tour was organized for a visit to the site.
BYU also is involved in using multi-spectral analysis of the collection and have uncovered additional information on the papyri not visible in normal light.
We stopped at the Supreme Council of Antiquities secure storage and conservation building for Oxyrhynchus and met with Mustafa. Mustafa had been in Los Angeles last year and his English was better than our Arabic, combined.
A tender mercy unfolded. Whilst languishing in Cairo trying to retrieve the surveying equipment from Customs, on Sunday, I (Dr. Evans) had taken a letter to Dr. Mohammed Ismail, the Director of Foreign Missions of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in the Ministry of State for Antiquities. Also waiting to see him in the outer wait room (the secretary is Mona and she will offer to sell you an academic book for $250) were Dr. Hassan (University of Cairo) and Dr. Padro (University of Barcelona) waiting to sign the contract to begin their season in Oxyrhynchus. They invited us to visit their excavation, if we were to come. All of the difficulties in Cairo were erased with our visit to their excavation. We could not have planned to have this opportunity for us and especially Lincoln.
Walking 700 yards across the desert and over succesive mounds of pottery sherds (rubbish heaps) we came over the hill to the roman tombs of Oxyrhynchus. Dr. Podra took us on the personal tour up and down through the site saturated with vaulted tombs populated by majestic light grey granite sarcophigi. The lids were carved with the figure of a human, the head and face distinctively round and wide and some with prayers and exhortations written in the stone. In one tomb is the inscription (in Greek), “Oh Mark, blessed of Jesus Christ.”
A blessing to have such an unparalleled opportunity unfold from a seeming chance encounter in a government office.
A web site maintained by the University of Barcelona provides more information and pictures of the site.
On the way back, stopped at a security check point by the police. The driver had to go in and get his license and registration checked. No problem. Going home.