At the end of the 19th century, a team of British archeologists happened upon what is now one of the world’s most treasured trash dumps.
The site, situated west of the main course of the Nile, about five days journey south of Memphis, lay near the city of Oxyrhynchus. Garbage mounds are always a sweet target for those interested in the past, but what made the Oxyrhynchus dump special was its exceptional dryness. The water table lay deep; it never rained. And this meant that the 2,000-year-old papyrus in the mounds, and the text inscribed on it, were remarkably well preserved.
Eventually some half a million pieces of papyrus were drawn from the desert and shipped back to Oxford University, where generations of scholars have been painstakingly transcribing and translating them. The manuscripts are rich, fascinating, and varied. The texts include lost comedies by the great Athenian playwright Menander, and the controversial Gospel of Thomas, along with glimpses of daily life — personal notes, receipts for the purchase of donkeys and dates — and the occasional scrap of sex magic.
The pace, however, has been glacial. After a hundred-plus years, scholars have been able to work through only about 15 percent of the collection. The finish line appeared to lie centuries in the future.
But a few months ago, the papyrologists tried something bold. They put up a website, called Ancient Lives, with a game that allowed members of the public to help transcribe the ancient Greek at home by identifying images from the papyrus. Help began pouring in. In the short time the site has been running, people have contributed 4 million transcriptions. They have helped identify Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plutarch’s “On the Cleverness of Animals,” and more.
Ancient Lives is part of a new approach to the conduct of modern scholarship, called crowd science or citizen science. The idea is to unlock thorny research projects by tapping the time and enthusiasm of the general public. In just the last few years, crowd science projects have generated notable contributions to fields as disparate as ecology, AIDS research, and astronomy. The approach has already accelerated research in a handful of specialized fields. And it may also accomplish something else: breaking down some of the old divisions between the highly educated mandarins of the academy and the curious amateurs out in the world.