Ebony and Meretseger: On a New Kingdom Herd of Cows

Jennifer Cromwell

A sale document from the Fayum showed us that Roman soldiers living here named their cows, as discussed in a previous post. But, they were not the first people in Egypt to do so – Egyptians had been naming their cows for millennia beforehand!

On the back of a magical text from New Kingdom Thebes, which contains incantations against snakebites, are a series of columns containing texts of a more mundane nature. One group of columns deals with harvesting, collection, and distribution of grain, while another group contains an inventory of items in a storeroom. Between these two groups is a column that stands alone. It contains a list of cows and their calves, and the cows are named. While the magical text has been published (by Christian Leitz in his 1999 book Magical and Medical Papyri of the New Kingdom), these unconnected accounts and lists have not been fully published. What little there is on the text is noted in the bibliography below, while the Deir el-Medina database contains some more data. 
The image below shows part of this document, British Museum EA 9997/1, with our column of cows highlighted by a red box. The names of five cows are underlined and they are both varied and idiosyncratic in nature. Their calves are also mentioned, but without names. While it may not be surprising that cows had names, a different question is why the names of some are recorded but not others? Does this mean that only some cows had names, and as for the calves, did they not have names at a young age and were only named when they were weened or put to work? As this list doesn’t have a heading, it’s difficult to know if these cows all formed part of a single herd or not – perhaps they belonged to a temple rather than a single farmer, but we can’t be sure.

Line 4.1: The Full Temple (or The Full Estate)
Line 4.2: Meretseger 
Line 4.5: Ebony 
Line 4.7: Dove (or Pigeon)
Line 4.9: The Wind in the City 

BM EA 9997/1; note that the first number refers to the assigned column number, the second is to the line number.
BM EA 9997/1, with column 4 highlighted and cows’ names underline (c) Trustees of the British Museum

These names have everything: other animals (dove), colours (ebony from the exotic wood), more descriptive names (does the Full Temple refer to a large cow, and the Wind in the City a particularly flatulent one? or are these just connotations to an anglophone reader?), and even the name of the local Theban goddess, Meretseger. Naming animals after other animals is quite common, as a list of named donkeys also from New Kingdom Thebes shows us (you can read about them here). Some of the cows are also described, with descriptions including ‘red-coloured’ and ‘dappled’/‘mottled’ (the word in question is only used of cows and snakes).

This list is not the only evidence that survives of named cows from New Kingdom Thebes. In the tomb of Ramose at Deir el-Medina (referred to by the designation Theban Tomb – or TT – 212), one of the broken scenes shows two cows followed by their herder or ploughman. The photo below is a century old, but you can see the cows’ horns, which helps you make out the rest of the animals. Above their backs is a line of hieroglyphs, recording a speech that the servant Ptahsankh (the man shown) says to his master Ramose (the tomb owner). Ptahsankh confirms that he is watching the cows, who are called West and Beautiful Flood. Just as no two cows are the same, seemingly neither were their names!

Cows in the tomb of Ramose at Deir el-Medina, TT212 (reign of Rameses II). Scene published in Bernard Bruyère, Rapport sur les fouilles de Deir El Médineh (1923-1924), pl. XIX (hieroglyph insert from p. 65), which you can access online here. You can see more from the tomb on Osirisnet here.

An Aside: Modern stories – descriptions and digital lives
When you read descriptions of papyrus documents, you frequently see the terms ‘recto’ and ‘verso’. In practice, these refer to the front and back of the papyrus, which is determined by the direction of the papyrus fibres themselves. Depending on the period and type of document, the front could be the side with horizontal fibres, and the horizontal text is written along these fibres, or it could be the side with vertical fibres, with the text written across the fibres. In the case of this papyrus, the text on the front – and so the first use of the papyrus – was the magical text. At some point in the New Kingdom, these incantations stopped being used and the papyrus was turned over and used for recording the agricultural, administrative texts described above, which remain unpublished. Such reuse of papyrus in the ancient world is not uncommon. It may have been because the original was damaged rather than no longer being of use – another papyrus fragment in the British Museum (EA 10309) is part of the same original text, but doesn’t directly join the section discussed here (and so something is missing between them).
As part of the modern lives of ancient material, there is also the digital presence to deal with, which is how many people today interact with them. And this digital presence can sometimes be confusing, regardless of how much experience you have in working with online records. In putting together the story of this herd of cows, navigating the different records was something that confused me and is also worth narrating (in all fairness, some confusion comes from the fact that my hieratic is particularly rusty). First, the British Museum entry for EA 9997/1 notes that it contains columns 1–3 of an agricultural text, but it actually contains columns 4–7 (the other three columns are on EA 9997/2, which is similarly mislabelled). Instead, those column numbers refer to the magical text on the front. When we turn to the papyrological database Trismegistos, the magical text (TM755130) is described as the verso of the papyrus, and as a reuse of the blank side of the agricultural account (TM139326). Furthermore, the magical text is dated extraordinarily broadly to 3350 BC–799 AD while the agricultural text is dated to the New Kingdom (1539–1077 BC). The latter text contains dates that almost certainly belong to the reign of Rameses XI, and so the very end of the New Kingdom, and so the magical text must predate it (perhaps to the 19th dynasty). The modern digital life of this papyrus is therefore inconsistent and confusing, and a reminder that such online records are not infallible. Highlighting these errors is not meant to be a criticism – these online catalogues and databases are a great service and rely on the dedication of numerous people, often on top of their jobs (and, seriously, research would be so much harder without them). Digital errors can be corrected. And by the time you read this, the records may be different. But this raises another point in the study of such material, and that is how easy it is to erase and replace digital information, thereby modifying the story of the modern digital history of these documents. After all, it’s not just the writing itself that has a story to tell.

After reading my post on Roman soldiers naming their cows, several people got in touch to say that cows were named in other times and places. I’d like here to thank Matthias Müller for telling me about the existence of this unpublished list of cows in the British Museum.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Western Thebes (perhaps Deir el-Medina).
Date: Late Ramesside Period (preserved dates in part of the text suggest the reign of Rameses XI, ca. 1107–1077 BC).
Language: Late Egyptian, written in the hieratic script.
Collection: British Museum, EA 9997 (EA 10309 is also part of the same original document).
Designation: P.BM EA 9997 verso. 
Bibliography: There is no full edition of the text. A hieroglyphic transcription of the text is included in Kenneth Kitchen (1989), Ramesside Inscriptions VII, pp. 389–394 (available online here). The text is referred to in Jaroslav Čern‎‎ý (1973), A Community of Workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside Period, pp. 263, 268, 270. A preliminary description and discussion of the text is provided by Robert Demarée (2015), “A Late New Kingdom Administrative Miscellany on the verso of a Magical Papyrus in the British Museum: Preliminary notes,” in Ursula Verhoeven (ed.), Ägyptologische ‘Binsen’ – Weiheiten I–II. Neue Forschungen und Methoden der Hieratistik, pp. 335–340.

Magical text on the recto of P.BM EA 9997 (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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