Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College Dublin Brian McGing told Latin students that translating ancient papyri is difficult because of issues including funding, poor handwriting and grammar errors.
McGing is a papyrologist, a scholar of ancient papyri, or documents written on paper made from the light and durable papyrus reed found in Lower Egypt. He is also the author of a book examining ancient Greek scholar Polybius’s “Histories.”
McGing is visiting schools to speak about Trinity and its classical program and was invited to Harvard-Westlake to promote the college in Latin Literature Honors classes.
During his visit, McGing spoke about his work as a papyrologist. Using a PowerPoint, he explained the challenges of overcoming grammatical errors, word omissions and poor handwriting to decipher papyri.
“It was a privilege to listen someone so clearly knowledgeable and truly excited about what he was teaching while adding depth to our understanding of the ancient world,” Latin Literature Honors student Alisha Bansal ’14 said.
“It’s a very, very specialized and difficult field because what survives is extremely incomplete, and a lot of his job is not only deciphering difficult handwriting, but it’s also having a knowledge of the language so he can supply what’s missing so that a text makes sense,” Latin teacher Paul Chenier said.
McGing works primarily with Egyptian manuscripts, which have survived due to Egypt’s hot desert climate. He shared some of his own projects, including a papyrus signed by Cleopatra and a manuscript from the Gospels. He also spoke about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, texts written from the first to sixth centuries in Greek, Latin and Arabic and uncovered by archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries near the Upper Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.
McGing also said that the custom of using papyri to wrap crocodiles before they were buried in Egyptian tombs preserved many more papyri for thousands of years than would otherwise have survived, and papyrologists are able to read these documents to learn more about the everyday uses of papyri and the culture of the ancient Egyptians.
McGing said that papyrologists cannot study all of the papyri they have discovered. The locations of thousands of unearthed papyri are already known, but linguists and papyrologists require funding to dig them up before they can be translated.