One-way Tickets to the Netherworld: Mummy Labels and Inscribed Mummy Shrouds

*GUEST POST by Luigi Prada (see his bio here)

On 26th April of the 24th year of reign of an unspecified Roman emperor (probably Commodus, which equals the year 184 AD), a modest Egyptian priest named Bes, son of his namesake and a lady called Tadinebhau, died in Pernebwadj, a provincial town in Middle Egypt—then a remote region within the vastness of the Roman empire. We know almost the precise address in Pernebwadj at which Bes had resided during his lifetime, within the town’s ‘tenth quarter’. Such detailed information stems from neither an inscription on Bes’ tomb walls nor a papyrus, but from a much more unassuming object: his mummy label (UC 45626).

fig 1 – 45626
UC 45626 (c) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
fig 2 – Flinders_Petrie
William Matthew Flinders Petrie

Mummy labels are a type of artefact characteristic of Roman Egypt, from which they survive in their thousands—though they are also attested, in much more limited numbers, from Ptolemaic and even earlier, dynastic times. They consist of small tablets, often around ten centimetres in length and half the size in width, which are typically made of wood, albeit other materials (e.g., stone or bone) are attested as well. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology’s collection comprises hundreds of such items, the origin of many of which is—remarkably, and unlike those in many other museum holdings—documented through William Flinders Petrie’s own excavation records (for Petrie, see here).

 

As suggested by their name, the primary function of these objects was utilitarian: they ‘labelled’, i.e. identified, the mummy to which they were attached, through inscriptions giving the deceased’s name, typically in association with that of their parents (a necessary form of identification in a society like that of ancient Egypt, which knew no surnames). Optionally, additional information could be included on these labels, to give the name not only of the dead’s parents, but also of their forefathers, as well as their age at the time of death, the date of their death or burial, their profession, their origin and/or place of residence, and any other information that the family (or the embalmers) opted to include. Labels could be inscribed in either demotic or Greek, the two languages spoken in Egypt at the time, and many a label actually bore the same text in both—one language per side—thus being a remarkable testimony to the multilingualism of Roman Egypt. More rarely, inscriptions in hieratic or even hieroglyphs occurred (such is the case for Bes’ label, whose text is written in demotic and hieratic).

Sometimes, texts could even be accompanied by drawings. The Petrie collection includes a few very fine examples of such illustrated mummy labels. One is that of Tabyn, daughter of Pasherinpu son of Hun (UC 39590): here, lying on a lion-shaped bier and in the care of the embalmer-god Anubis, her mummy is portrayed oddly sporting a beard—an obvious feature of male mummies! Another is the label of Nesmin the Elder, son of Padiaset (UC 34471), which is decorated with the figure of a recumbent jackal, emblematic of the god Anubis. Both labels, made of limestone and of early Roman date, originate from Petrie’s excavations in Dendera.

Fig 3 and 4
Left: UC 39590. Right: UC 34471 (c) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

So, why were these objects so common in Roman Egypt? By that time, mummies were often cheaply prepared and deposited in mass-tombs, without a coffin to protect them or much in the way of funerary equipment. Thus, the function that had previously been fulfilled (and was still, but only for more elite burials) by inscriptions on tomb walls, coffins, stelae, or papyri, was now often compacted in these small and cheap artefacts.

fig 5 – 39582
UC 39582 (c) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

And, although their primary function was to identify the body to which they were attached, they could also take over a ritual and religious function—both through drawings of a mortuary character (such as those presented above) and through the inclusion in their texts of funerary formulae and prayers for the wellbeing of the deceased in the netherworld. This is the case, for instance, in the following example, which begins with a variant of the ‘offering formula’ (a kind of religious invocation attested since the earliest times of Egyptian history, in the third millennium BC) for the benefit of the deceased ‘Pana, son of Padihorsematawy son of Pana son of Hornefer, who has gone to his forefathers, in (his) 27th year of life, 6th month, and 21st day’ (note how the text enlightens us over Pana’s pedigree through four generations!). Pana’s mummy label ends with the expression of a pious wish on the part of his loved ones: ‘May his soul live for eternity and ever’ (UC 39582).

 

Similar short funerary texts could also be written directly on the mummy’s bandages, whenever a mummy label was not available or otherwise deemed unnecessary. One remarkable such example is a lavishly painted mummy shroud of Roman date (UC 38058). The linen cloth that contains the body is decorated with several religious motifs, among which is the god Osiris, standing at the centre of it. Originally, this shroud would have been combined with one of the so-called ‘Fayum portraits’, life-like encaustic portraits on wooden tablets placed on the mummy’s visage, in order to preserve forever their original appearance. Looking at the shroud closely, one notices a brief demotic text written just above its feet: ‘Pyltewa, the man from the Fayum—in order to transport <him> to Hawara’. In this case, the text fulfils two very practical functions. On the one hand, it identifies the deceased, a certain Pyltewa—possibly an Egyptian rendering of the Greek name Philotas. On the other hand, it is almost a ‘parcel delivery’ note, for it contains an instruction to deliver the body, once its mummification had been completed, to its family and tomb in Hawara, the city and cemetery at the entrance of the semi-oasis of the Fayum where Petrie unearthed it some two millennia later.

fig 6 – 38058
UC 38058 (c) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The value that mummy labels and similar notes on mummy bandages or shrouds have for the modern historian can hardly be overstated. Taken individually, they may appear unremarkable and of little consequence. But once hundreds or thousands of them are brought together into statistical studies, with focus either on a specific town/cemetery or on larger areas (including Egypt as a whole), their importance becomes apparent. Not only do these objects inform us on the funerary practices of the time, they are unique sources for the social history of Roman Egypt, allowing us to reconstruct the genealogy of families, the demography of smaller and larger communities, their mortality rates—at times, we can even trace a ‘topography of the dead’, as in the case of the label of Bes discussed above, where the information on his mummy label also reveals the neighbourhood of the town in which he had spent his life. This is all to show that, unexpected as this may be, it is often through the evidence of small and unassuming objects that history is written.

*Note: all of the above images are available on the Petrie Museum’s online catalogue (accessible here). When searching for items by inventory number, the UC prefix is needed plus the number, with no spaces (e.g., UC45626 not UC 45626).

Technical Details

Label 1

Provenance: Pernebwadj (Middle Egypt)

Date: 26thApril, perhaps 184 CE (during the reign of Commodus)

Language: Egyptian (hieratic and demotic)

Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London (UC 45626)

Designation: Short Texts II 444 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Bibliography: Sven P. Vleeming (2011), Demotic and Greek Mummy Labels and other short texts gathered from many publications (Leuven) #444.

 

Label 2

Provenance: Dendera

Date: 30 BCE to 50 CE

Language: Egyptian (demotic)

Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London (UC 45626)

Designation: Short Texts II 350 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Bibliography: William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1900), Dendereh 1898 (London), p. 56, pl. 26B (#56) Günter Vittmann (1985), ‘Mumienschilder in Petries Dendereh’, Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 112, p. 162 (#56); Sven P. Vleeming (2011), Demotic and Greek Mummy Labels and other short texts gathered from many publications (Leuven) #350.

 

Label 3

Provenance: Dendera

Date: 30 BCE to 50 CE

Language: Egyptian (demotic)

Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London (UC 34471)

Designation: Short Texts II 369 (according to Checklist of Editions)

Bibliography: William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1900), Dendereh 1898 (London), p. 56, pl. 26A (#10) Günter Vittmann (1985), ‘Mumienschilder in Petries Dendereh’, Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 112, p. 155 (#10); Betsy Teasley-Trope, Stephen Quirke, and Peter Lacovara (2005), Excavating Egypt: Great Discoveries from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London (Atlanta), #143; Sven P. Vleeming (2011), Demotic and Greek Mummy Labels and other short texts gathered from many publications (Leuven) #369.

 

Label 4

Provenance: Dendera

Date: 41 to 54 CE

Language: Egyptian (demotic)

Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London (UC 39582)

Designation: Short Texts II 378 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Bibliography: William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1900), Dendereh 1898 (London), p. 56, pl. 26A (#48) Günter Vittmann (1985), ‘Mumienschilder in Petries Dendereh’, Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 112, p. 160 (#48); Sven P. Vleeming (2011), Demotic and Greek Mummy Labels and other short texts gathered from many publications (Leuven) #378.

Bandages

Provenance: Hawara

Date: Roman (30 BC to 284 CE)

Language: Egyptian (demotic)

Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London (UC 38058)

Designation: Short Texts II 1041 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Bibliography: William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1911), Roman Portraits and Memphis IV (London), p. 22, pl. 24 (#6); Lorelei H. Corcoran (1995), Portrait Mummies from Roman Egypt (I–IV Centuries AD) with a Catalog of Portrait Mummies in Egyptian Museums (Chicago) p. 41 #a; Sven P. Vleeming (2011), Demotic and Greek Mummy Labels and other short texts gathered from many publications (Leuven) #1041.


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