On the second day of the excavations, Dr Hunt was examining a crumpled fragment that had just been found by the workmen. It contained only a few legible lines of text, but one of these contained the very rare Greek word karphos, which means “a mote”. Immediately, Hunt made the connection with the verse in St Matthew’s Gospel about the mote in your brother’s eye; yet, with a thrill, Hunt realised that the wording differed significantly from the Gospel.

The fragment turned out to be part of a lost collection of the Sayings of Jesus, which predated by hundreds of years any New Testament fragment then extant. This was in turn later revealed to be a part of the long-lost Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. “I proceeded to increase the number of workmen gradually up to 110,” wrote Grenfell, “and as we moved over other parts of the site, the flow of papyri soon became a torrent which it was difficult to cope with . . .”

By the end of the first season, Grenfell and Hunt had discovered an entire library of lost classics, including a tattered verse by Sappho in which she prays for her brother’s safe return – a poem not seen by human eyes since the fall of Rome.

more from The New Statesman here.