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Hitting jackpot in an ancient Egyptian tip; A Birmingham-born archeologist discovered important papyri in ancient Egypt and left a valuable legacy for future generations. Chris Upton looks and his life.

Byline: Chris Upton

THE name of John Granville Grenfell is unlikely ever to lead the pack in Birmingham biographies.

Grenfell was a teacher at Queen's College and assistant master at King Edward's in the second half of the 19th century.

And, although King Edward's was approaching the zenith of its influence and furnishing the Anglican table with a host of bishops, Grenfell does not appear to have risen far.

Sometime in the 1870s he decamped to become a housemaster at Clifton College in Bristol. He was to die in Pisa in 1897.

It was John's son who was destined to rise higher. Bernard Pyne Grenfell was born in Birmingham in December 1869, perhaps in Reservoir Road. He attended his father's old school before joining the family in Bristol. A good education at Birmingham and Clifton led inevitably to Oxford and in particular to the other Queen's College, where he subsequently became a fellow.

Bernard Grenfell was a classicist; at this date it was difficult to go to university and be anything else.

No doubt his father's influence - John had worked in the department of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum in the early 1860s - was at the heart of this. But the son, once he graduated in 1892, had a hankering to take his classical education a little further. Bernard won a travelling scholarship and off he went.

Now, it's easy to imagine that classical literature came to a juddering halt with the fall of the Roman Empire. The great poetry and drama was all done and dusted and after that it was a matter of attrition as to what survived into the modern era.

Not a lot, it has to be said. From the time of Shakespeare onwards, grammar school boys and girls have had to endure the self same diet of Cicero and Virgil, Homer and Herodotus. Like in the school dining hall, the menu changeth not.

But that is not, or should not be, the complete picture. In the dry, preservative sands of Egypt ancient manuscripts of classical literature have continued to come to light, adding significantly to the classical corpus and, indeed, to biblical literature too.

By Victorian times classical archaeologists were travelling east, papyrus hunting, with the fond hope that they might be the one who unearthed a new Homer, or uncovered a new Ovid. For Bernard Grenfell and his colleague and friend Arthur Surridge Hunt, that wish was to become a reality.

After cutting his teeth on a few 17th century papyri under the direction of Flinders Petrie, in 1895, Grenfell headed for the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhyncus, a hundred miles or so south of Cairo, and here he hit the jackpot. This was once one of the great centres of eastern antiquity but Oxyrhyncus had fallen on hard times in the 600s AD and nothing of the place now remains above ground.

Below ground was another matter. For a century or more in late antiquity the people of Oxyrhyncus had dumped all their rubbish - including all their books and paperwork - in landfill sites on the edge of town.

It was these tips that Grenfell and Hunt stumbled upon the 1890s and at a stroke Oxyrhyncus became a byword for lost (and found) antiquity. Even today, more than a century after they uncovered them, the papyrus rolls and codices Grenfell and Hunt dug out of that rubbish have continued to be scrutinised and copied and published. Grenfell's legacy endures, almost a century after his death.

What's remarkable about Grenfell's excavations, apart from the richness of the finds, was his work with native workers, whom he trained to be papyrus hunters, delicately delving into the rubbish and opening up old mummy cases in search of treasures.

In that first year Grenfell uncovered an unknown poem by the poetess Sappho - gold standard if ever there was one - plus a collection of "Sayings of Jesus", which turned out to be part of the apocryphal Gospel of St Thomas, excluded from the New Testament.

Once these finds were unveiled to the world, there was never any shortage of cash to continue digging. Bernard Grenfell found himself returning to Oxyrhyncus year after year, while working on the papyri in Oxford much of the rest of his time. Oxford University created the world's first chair of papyrology especially for him.

Overwork, or perhaps the Egyptian conditions, did for him. Grenfell suffered a nervous breakdown in 1906, pretty well incapacitating him for the next seven years. Grenfell returned to his beloved papyri only in 1913, when he began to shuttle between England and Egypt once more. Ill health returned soon after the war and Grenfell was admitted first to a sanatorium in Fife and then to a mental hospital near Perth. He died in May 1926, still only 56 years old.

The work of Bernard Pyne Grenfell may not have changed your life but for any classicist, or any archaeologist, for that matter, his legacy has been immeasurable. For one thing, his ground-breaking methods of working with a native labour force set a model for archaeologists working abroad.

And the fragments of the classical canon that Grenfell and Hunt unearthed are a gift that keeps giving: new poems by Pindar, Sappho and Alcaeus, extensive parts of a unknown play by Euripides, a "Constitution of Athens" once thought to be by Aristotle, and a continuation of the histories of Thucydides.

And, among all that high art, the correspondence, shopping lists and memos by the everyday folk of Oxyrhyncus bring to life a Greco-Roman town in rich and compelling detail. Call it the Pompeii of the East; call it Bernard's town.

Even today, more than a century after they uncovered them, the papyrus rolls and codices Grenfell and Hunt dug out of that rubbish have continued to be scrutinised and copied and published '


Archaeologist Bernard Pyne Grenfell

Bernard Pyne Grenfell (left) and his colleague and friend Arthur Surridge Hunt searching for papyri in Egypt
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:May 21, 2015
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