Monday, October 12, 2009

Child Labour at Oxyrhynchus

In NT Pod 15: Gospel of Thomas, The First Glimpse, I mentioned that Grenfell and Hunt used a lot of child labour in their excavations. It is as likely as not that it was a child who found the first fragment of the Gospel of Thomas, P.Oxy. 1. Here is the relevant passage in Bernard Grenfell's account of the excavations that led to that discovery:
The excavator in Egypt is not much troubled by the restrictions which hamper the independence of employers of labor in this country. There is no question there about an eight-hours day. Sunrise to sunrise, with an hour off at noon, makes a nine to eleven-hours day even for the youngest, and one does not hear much about "half-timers." As the papyrus digging was comparatively light work, I had more boys than men diggers, the former being not only easier to manage and more trustworthy, but quite as keen about the work as the men, which is rather remarkable, seeing that all their earnings go to their parents. But I should think nearly every boy in the district who could walk wanted to be taken on to the work. Some of the tiny applicants really looked as though they had only recently left their cradles, if they had ever known such luxuries, which, of course, they had not. One of the smartest workers of all was also the smallest, a little chap of about eight years old, who had a wonderful eye for the right kind of soil for finding papyri. I am afraid some tender-hearted persons would have thought me a very brutal taskmaster, if they could have seen some of these children lifting and carrying away heavy baskets of rubbish all day, clothed, perhaps, if the weather was hot, in nothing but a cap on their heads and a piece of string around their waists. But I think the same persons would have retracted their opinion, if they could, at the end of the day's work, have seen the said infants racing each other home over the sand dunes, while I plowed my way painfully in the rear (Bernard P. Grenfell, M.A., "The Oldest Record of Christ's Life", McClure's Magazine Oct. 1897; Vol. IX, No. 6, 1022-30 (1029-30).

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