Citizen Science translating ancient lives

Citizen Science translating ancient lives

[Dr Dirk Obbink:] We’re serving up
to a school student sitting in front of a computer, who takes a papyrus
that nobody’s looked at for 2,000 years, and he’s transcribing it for the first time. We have over a million fragments of papyrus ranging in size from a postage stamp
to the size of a Sunday Times newspaper. A small core of
experts worked on them for over a century, piece by piece, letter by letter, painstakingly reconstructing the text. But it was just a drop in the bucket. In a century we published less than 1% of the material. I had the idea of
speeding up the process by using the Internet. [James Brusuelas:] It’s citizen science: Ancient Lives, within the first week,
brought in 125,000 new members to the community. [Dirk Obbink:] As a child I was fascinated by the
discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls — the idea that a whole library, forgotten,
sealed up in a cave and then 2,000 years later… somebody, a peasant, stumbles on it. The whole study of a religion is revolutionised. I work on ancient paper. Most of it comes from Egypt,
in particular Graeco-Roman Egypt. They left behind a
huge treasure trove of ancient documents. Papyrus is made up of strips of the papyrus plant pressed together into strips at 90-degree angles, so there are two layers of it. It was used first in a scroll form, and then later in the form of pages of a book. When a book wore out it was very often
turned over and they recycled the back — it was a valuable commodity — but eventually it wore out. Maybe it was used to wrap fish in,
to make up cartonnage or cardboard, but eventually it went into the ground — into a rubbish mound, into a tomb,
sometimes into a house foundation. The Oxyrhynchus Collection has over a
million fragments of papyrus that were brought back
to England by two Oxford undergraduates. A.S. Hunt and B.P. Grenfell
brought back, over 10 years of excavation, 1,000 boxes of papyri,
numbering well over 1,000,000 fragments. and these are now housed in the Sackler library where a small team of researchers works on them. So I ran a digitisation project. We made digital images of them, we created computer data banks
so they could be sifted through instantaneously, and it’s these images that
we put into the Ancient Lives project, to let interested amateurs, professionals, and even school children, learning the Greek
alphabet for the first time, come into the project. [James Brusuelas:] So, when you go in here,
the user is just seeing the image of the papyrus. They’ve got a keyboard of Greek right here: This is just based on simple pattern recognition. It does not require you to know Greek. If you know Greek, that’s fantastic, but you just need to be able to make the connection
between the letters you see on the keyboard and what you see on the papyrus. So, every time you see a character, you click where it is. You just basically start transcribing: epsilon… that’s gamma… there’s rho…and so on. You go on and do as much as you can do. Some users will do just a couple of lines, some users will spend hours upon hours and just transcribe
as much papyri as as they possibly can. [Dirk Obbink:] What we were actually doing
was capitalising on these people’s time, exploiting their interest, but also their willingness to
actually help out with a research project, to actually produce data
that they could then see the results of, because they can call the transcript back up, they can see the translation,
in the end, of what they’ve transcribed. So there’s a payoff for them, there’s a payoff for us… [James Brusuelas:] As of around last October, we had well over 1,500,000 transcriptions and it was over 7,000,000 individual
characters that had been recorded in the system. Within about a year of the project, we had more transcriptions taken than have ever been done. [Dirk Obbink:] It’s called crowdsourcing because we deal with hundreds of thousands of people entering hundreds of thousands
of texts every day into a database. The actual papyrus texts contain
a menagerie of detail from the ancient world, from the books that were read in schools to their census returns and their tax papers. Almost every year we do find
a new gospel that was previously unattested, but offers a completely new account. What we had — from this wealth of garbage — was something like
a complete picture of an ancient social world.


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    This is indeed a very interessting project. As a History student I'm happy about projects like this, where everyone can participate in unraveling our past.

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    Mal Fabian

    cant wait until all ancient manuscripts are running projects exactly like this , how wonderful it will be for older people to be able to use their free time and skills in such a productive way , I know there are millions of untranslated manuscripts still sitting in dusty achieves all around the planet , often in obscure languages that are never going to be translated by conventional means

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