The diggers

It was only in the late nineteenth century that people began to realise what the dumps might offer. Egyptian peasants had made finds by chance, and sold them to western museums; scholars began to wonder what could be got by systematic excavation. And so it was in 1897 that the City of the Sharp-nosed Fish came back to life.

The excavators were two men in their late twenties, operating from Oxford and financed by the Egypt Exploration Society of London. Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt had become friends when scholarships took them to Queen’s College, Oxford (they were off mountaineering together in the Tyrol in the summer holidays of 1889). By 1895, now on graduate scholarships, they were in Egypt. They were to spend the rest of their lives pioneering a new branch of classics: papyrology.

‘Huntley and Palmer’s Best’

Winters were spent in Egypt. Thirty foremen and a hundred workmen (in those days the wages came to £30 a week for the lot) attacked the mounds. They found papyri, mixed with earth and other rubbish, heaped thirty feet deep.

The finds were collected in baskets, then boxed and shipped back to Oxford — one roll in an old biscuit tin (‘Huntley and Palmer’s Best’). It was a lonely life, and even potentially dangerous; a shopping list of Hunt’s includes medicines, fish-hooks, The Old Curiosity Shop and a revolver with forty cartridges. “Good luck in the gravedigging”, wrote Grenfell’s brother.

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