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The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish by Peter…

The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish

by Peter Parsons

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1066113,849 (3.74)8
  1. 00
    In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh (wandering_star)
    wandering_star: Both these books deal, in part, with the view of daily life which was revealed to historians by the unexpected survival of waste paper (old shopping lists, letters, and other detritus of daily life) in the dry Egyptian air.
  2. 00
    Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day by Philip Matyszak (meggyweg)

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In 1897 excavations were started in what turned out to be the rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchos, a small Ptolemaic and Roman city in Egypt (now the village of El-Behnesa). Over six years a huge number of papyri were discovered and they are still being deciphered and published today.

After some introductory chapters on the history of Egypt, the history of Egyptology and the excavations at Oxyrhynchos, which tended to be rather repetitive, the book discusses various topics of social life in Roman Egypt based on the papyri, with extensive quotations.

Unfortunately the ebook formatting omits most punctuation marks and all letters with diacritical marks so it is sometimes quite an exercise in decipherment itself. It's often not clear what is paraphrase and what is quotation, unless an unexpected first person gives the game away, events took place in e.g. 20610 (206-10), and there are enough missing apostrophes to stock a large city's greengrocers. Transliterations using a macron to mark an eta or omega just omit the letter altogether as do names of scholars with umlauts or French accents.

Having said all that, it is a fascinating glimpse into life as it was lived back then as shown by people's waste-paper. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Aug 5, 2015 |
In the nineteenth century archaeologists digging near the Nile in Egypt discovered a treasure trove of ancient papyri. What they found includes classical literature; personal letters; administrative records and much more. Translating this vast collection is still going on but Peter Parsons describes what is known about life in Oxyrhynchos, the City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, mainly during the period of Roman rule through these documents.

Starting with the history of the discovery and the archaeologists Parsons then divides the documentary evidence into different subjects. There are some great illustrations - both of the site and the papyri; the story of life covered by the source material and the extracts that Parsons includes builds up into a fascinating picture of the times.

This is a good popular history, reasonably well laid out. The wealth of details included about the inhabitants and their daily life; the recovery of texts that were thought lost and the fact that the work of translation continues made this worth reading. Now I just need to wait and see what else will be uncovered from this treasure trove of papyri. ( )
  calm | Sep 28, 2012 |
In 1897, archeologists discovered the trash of the ancient town of Oxyrhynchos, well south of Cairo. The massive trove of papyrus unearthed from the site has taken over a century to translate -- the work continues even now. In this book, Peter Parsons, longtime head of the translation project, draws on the corpus to describe the social, economic, and political structure of the town in the first through the fourth centuries A.D. The book is interesting, but for a non-specialist, much of the detail will be hard to retain. Because of that, I found the most compelling passages were those setting the evidence from the Oxyrhynchos against what is known from other sources about the Roman world. The discussion of the literary riches revealed in the papyri -- fragments and sometimes whole works previously thought lost, both biblical and classical -- made me want to read translations of some of those, which Parsons doesn't provide - fortunately, some are available on line. ( )
  bezoar44 | Sep 24, 2012 |
There is a trend in recent decades for publishers to package and release books which aim for some synthesis of academic and popularist approaches to their subject. I'm thinking of 'Cod' and pretty much any of the works of Sobel, Gribbin, Asimov or Winchester. Having read and enjoyed many of them I have no argument with this approach. However, the problem for the popularizer of science or history is to find the right subject and present it competently, and then also to do it with an enthusiasm that captures the readers imagination. Ideally the reader with no prior acquaintance with the subject is swept up by the quality and energy of the writing and left with a valuable knowledge of something new. Some authors do it less well than others, and even some usually competent authors stumble, thinking of Winchesters 'Crack in the World' as an example. The publishers also seem to bear some responsibility for pushing forward - and packaging - some books which aren't in the top order but which they figure will sell well enough on the back of the publics' appetite for the genre. You might imagine from this build up that I am about to condemn Parson's book, but except in one respect it is one of the best I had read in recent years.

Parsons effectively reviews a hundred years of work on deciphering a hoard of papyri dug from the Egyptian desert which give an unparalleled insight into the daily life of an city and its inhabitants from the time of Christ to the collapse of the Roman Empire. He is tremendously well qualified as an expert in the field, and his writes well. He highlights the quirky, the human, and the commercial and administrative texts that build up a rare picture of a Greek-Egyptian town in Roman Egypt. You get a sense that he has set out to cover every aspect of daily life using fragments of letters, jottings and books, including very early Christian texts. In fact what he is doing is delivering a - quite lively - progress report on the work done in the last hundred years to decipher these texts, looking forward to possibly several decades of further work to decipher the remainder. In getting to grips with the detail Parsons gives the reader some of the wider context, the relationship between nations and religions, but he assumes the reader has enough knowledge to recognize the name of places and people to allow him to use them without further explanation. Essentially this is a wonderful insight into the politics and society of those days, but the reader really needs to come at it with a just a little prior knowledge, or a willingness to do a little work for their own part. So my only reservation about this book is that some might be surprised by the demands it makes of the reader, and the relentless rigor that the author brings to the task of exposing every aspect of life revealed through these papyri, whether they be titillating or mundane. But to my mind that is the mark of a good book, that they can be entertaining while aiming for something more important than just entertainment. Highly recommended.

There are some wonderful links which expand upon the Parsons book. Firstly the rather comprehensive Wiki page, then the home page of the papyri project at Oxford University, and finally the do it yourself translate a fragment of papyrus page which is part of the Oxford project ( )
1 vote nandadevi | Aug 7, 2012 |
This book is about daily life in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchos, as revealed by a cache of half a million scraps of papyrus that have survived in the dry, desert air - literature makes up about 10%, with the rest including letters, legal documents, account books and lesson texts.

It's a painstaking task, and far from all the scraps have been deciphered (they are being published in a series of academic volumes, of which 40 more are expected). But there is enough information for a fairly detailed account of life in the town over three centuries.

And the details are fascinating. Leases stipulate that the houses be returned with shutters and doors intact, and that rooms be 'cleansed of excrement'. A letter begging a friend to send papyrus is scrawled on a bit of broken pottery (the cheaper alternative). People petition the gods to ask whether they should go through with a contract, whether to 'approach the Prefect with a higher tender', whether they will ever marry. After Egyptians are given Roman citizenship, a woman applies for the right to manage her business on her own, by the ancient rule that a woman with three children could assert legal independence.

A writer more skilled in popularising his subject might have drawn out some of the detail a bit more, and emphasised the stories - for example, one of the chapters which was most vivid for me was the one on teaching materials, partly because I can imagine more easily being a hapless schoolboy struggling with Homer than I can being a brickmaker seeking chaff at low prices. But Parsons has been a leading academic expert in his subject for decades, so it seems pretty demanding to ask for more. ( )
  wandering_star | Aug 9, 2010 |
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This book began, in a way, fifty-five years ago, when as a schoolboy I became fascinated with the strange symbols of the ancient Greek alphabet, and discovered that, with some grammar and a dictionary, it was possible to make sense of the high poetry encoded in these symbols.
The Spanish-American War looked nearly over, the Dreyfus case had taken another turn, the Prince of Wales's knee had been treated with 'the X rays', Rugby and Marlborough had drawn at Lord's. The Times of 29 July1898 noted these facts; it noted also, under 'Books of the Week', the publication of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Part One.
Twenty years earlier, on 13 September 1878, The Times had reported on a more public event. Egypt had come to town, in monolithic form.
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"In 1897 two Oxford archaeologists began digging a series of low sand-covered mounds a hundred miles south of Cairo, on a side-branch of the Nile. They turned out to be the rubbish-dumps of an administrative centre and thriving city at the time of the Roman Empire - Oxyrhynchos ('City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish') - inhabited by descendants of the Greek immigrants who had colonized Egypt after Alexander the Great's conquest in 332 BC." "When Grenfell and Hunt had finally finished ten years later, they had uncovered, amidst the rubbish, 500,000 fragments of papyri. The papyri were shipped back to Oxford and the task of deciphering these fragments began. It is still going on today." "These papyri are a unique treasure-trove of original books and documents, in which lost masterpieces of Greek literature not seen by human eyes since the fall of Rome, and fragments of censored Christian Gospels, rub shoulders with tax returns, petitions, private letters, sales documents, loans, leases, wills and shopping-lists. What the excavators had found was the entire life and culture of a flourishing market-town, encapsulated in its waste paper." "We hear the voices of bee-keepers and boat-makers, dyers and donkey-drivers, weavers and wine-merchants, set against the great events of their age - the climax and crisis of the Roman Empire and the coming of Christianity."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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