Last week, I gave a talk to the Merchant Taylors’ School Classics society, at the invitation of a former supervisee of mine (and Girton directee, for that matter).
My talk concerned two papyri that came to the School through the ‘Oxyrhynchus distribution’. The papyri are a fourth-century CE personal letter and six literary fragments, of which three have been joined and were identified long ago as parts of Odyssey I.
These papyri have been looked after very well and it was an absolute pleasure to examine for myself and to use them for their intended purpose — the enthusing of young minds for the study of Graeco-Roman Antiquity, or, at least, of ‘Literature and Life at Late Roman Oxyrhynchus‘.
As I said, three of the six literary pieces have been identified as parts of Odyssey I, while the three others remain tantalizingly unidentified. The metallic ink had faded by the time of discovery from black to a pale brown hardly distinct from the papyrus itself on the photograph or, as it were, in the flesh. (The black carbon ink accents are more visible and facilitate identifying the Greek characters: ‘Greek accents never matter, except when they do’, one might say.)
I wanted to examine the papyrus using ultra-violet light and was granted the opportunity to do so after my talk. At the end of my talk, an excited pupil from a lower form bound up to his teacher to say, ‘Please, sir, do tell me what happens with the UV light’.
At this stage, the jury is still out on the literary papyrus fragments, but here is the demonstration of what UV light can bring out, even using nothing more flashy than a 9 LED 395nm lamp bought through Amazon.co.uk and marketed for locating stains left by pets and for determining whether bank notes are fake or marked.
The first photograph here is in natural light. It shows an envelope that I kept because it had a story behind it. Just before the Financial Crisis, when I was still ‘Mr P. James’ and soon after I had started work for the Greek Lexicon Project, I, then 25, tried to cash in some money that my grandmother had left to me. All knowledge of the account’s existence was denied. The game was afoot. As I recall, I even had to enlist my PhD supervisor to authenticate my signatures.
In time, I succeeded in demonstrating that I was owed money by pointing out the oddity that interest was being paid into a non-existent account in proportion to a non-existent sum of money. An anomaly, to be sure, and my own window into financial services prior to the Crisis. The cheque arrived in this envelope.
I pinned it to the Greek Lexicon Project’s noticeboard to share my amusement with my colleagues. Traces around two drawing-pin holes are clear to the naked eye (centre, top), but the hand-written address faded through exposure to sun light. You could convince yourself that there had once been writing, particularly by rotating the original so that may catch the light. Or, you could resort to UV light.
With the aid of UV light and the use of a mobile-phone digital camera, the oddity in the address — the reason why I kept the envelope for display — becomes clear. Who were the ‘Greek Mexicans’? I do not know, but I did laugh all the way to the bank and I am pleased now to have this example of what can be done with UV light.