Hackley Classics Students Explore Ancient Papyri

Students in Latin II and III welcomed Dr. Enrico Emanuele Prodi of the University of Oxford into their classes this week for an interactive session on ancient manuscripts.
Dr. Prodi, who also visited seventh and eighth grade classes at Hackley in January, is an expert on ancient papyri – the paper-like material ancients used for writing which is the root of the English word “paper.” After an introduction to the subject, students worked in teams in breakout rooms to decipher a papyrus fragment, putting their Latin skills to work collaboratively.

Hundreds of thousands of papyrus fragments have survived from antiquity, many of which were discovered in the town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. The writings on these papyri range widely and include not only well-known works of literature, history, and mathematics (a fragment from Euclid’s Elements was among the discoveries at Oxyrhynchus), but also administrative documents, such as tax and census records, private letters, and even a “no trespassing” sign written in ancient Greek, which Dr. Prodi showed during his visit.  

“One of the many benefits of studying ancient papyri is that they show multiculturalism at work in the ancient world,” said Upper and Middle School Classics teacher Mr. Sheppard. Students examined several fragments which appear to have been created by ancient language learners. The fragments show vocabulary words side-by-side in Latin and ancient Greek, and in some cases, with the addition of a third language, Coptic. One fragment even included a bilingual conjugation table of amo, amas, amat (“I love,” “you love,” “he/she/it loves”), an exercise which is still familiar to students who begin a foreign language today. Jokes Dr. Pierce, Chair of Classics, “It is also good for students to see that the ancients needed to practice their declensions and memorize vocabulary too! They always ask whether the ancient Romans and Greeks deliberately invented challenging grammatical constructions just to torment them 2000 years later…”

Mr. Sheppard also highlighted the interdisciplinary dimension of studying ancient papyri. “Students are able to combine their skills in ancient languages with archaeology, history, and modern technology as they make sense of fragmentary texts.” Dr. Prodi’s visit is part of a series of projects which Hackley Classics students will undertake. 

“Dr. Prodi was so interesting!” said tenth grader Alex Elwell. “I want to go to grad school for something relating to classics or art history, and I loved hearing from someone who researches the same things I am interested in.” 

Dr. Prodi will return in May to visit students in Greek and AP Latin classes.