“Carrying on the art”: Hieroglyph Carvers in Roman Egypt

The year 2022 marks the 200-year anniversary of the modern decipherment of hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion. While hieroglyphs are synonymous with ancient Egypt, they continued to be used throughout the centuries of Ptolemaic and Roman rule, although in increasingly restricted areas of use and with fewer and fewer people bearing the knowledge to produce them. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates to August 394 CE, and was written by one Nesmeterakhem, the Second Priest of Isis, on a wall of the temple of Isis at Philae. 
Dating several centuries earlier, during the reign of emperor Trajan, a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus provides the briefest of glimpses into the lives of hieroglyph-carvers in this town. This papyrus, written to a royal scribe (Claudius Menandrus), records the names of all such men, together with where they were located in the town. Four of the men are from the ‘quarter of the Tenth’, one of whom, Osmolchis, is identified as a hieroglyphic carver of the god Osiris:

– Teos son of Onnophris and Taseus
– Onnophris, brother of Teos
– Asklas son of Onnophris (son of Osmolchis) and Tesauris
– Osmolchis, brother of Asklas

We don’t know anything about the parents of these two sets of brothers, born of two men called Onnophris – a common Egyptian name meaning ‘the one who is perfect’ (an epithet of Osiris). The fact that we are dealing with brothers perhaps indicates that this is a family occupation. The only other detail that we get is the association with the temple of Osiris in the town. And this connection is important, as throughout this period knowledge of hieroglyphs is confined mainly to the traditional temples and their priesthood. As for the fifth man, Ptolemais son of Petosorapis (son himself of Petosorapis), he lives in a different quarter of the town, Thoeris.
One especially interesting part of this list is the declaration that there are no more carvers in Oxyrhynchus – not even “apprentices or strangers carrying on the art down to the present day”! In a town of maybe 30,000 people, only a handful of men preserved this ancient knowledge.

Diagrammatic guide to the topography of Oxyrhynchus, from Richard Alston (2002), The City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt (London-New York), p. 267 (fig. 5.11). Mentioned in P.Oxy. VII 1029, he Tenth is located to the left of this diagram, Thoeris is in the middle, and the Osireion (temple of Osiris) on the right.

“To Claudius Menandrus, royal scribe (basilieogrammateus), from Teos, younger son of Onnophris son of Teos, his mother being Taseus, and Asklas son of Onnophris son of Osmolchis, his mother being Tesauris, both of the city of Oxyrhynchus, hieroglyphic carvers, who have been delegated by their fellow-carvers: the list of ourselves and the said fellow-carvers of hieroglyphics for the present year of Trajanus Caesar the lord, as follows:
In the quarter of the Tenth, Teos son of Onnophris, the aforesaid, Onnophris his brother, Asklas son of Onnophris, the aforesaid, Osmolchis his brother, who is also a hieroglyphic carver of Osiris the greatest god.
In the quarter of the square of Thoeris, Ptolemais son of Petosorapis son of Petosorapis. 
Total 5 men.
And we swear by the Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajanus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus that we have honestly and truthfully presented the foregoing list, and that there are no more than these, and that we have no apprentices or strangers carrying on the art down to the present day, otherwise may we be liable to the consequences of the oath. The 11th year of the Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajanus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, Phaophi 29.”

Trans. Arthur Hunt, P.Oxy. VII 1029 (1910).

But knowledge and use of hieroglyphs was not entirely restricted to a few people in Egypt. Several Roman Emperors removed Egyptian obelisks from Egypt and had them installed in the empire’s capital, Rome. And their fascination with obelisks didn’t end with appropriating ancient monuments. A small number of new obelisks were also built during the late 1st century CE. Today in Piazza Navona stands the obelisk of Domitian (81–96 CE), while two smaller twin obelisks were erected in the name of the same emperor in the city Benevento (see the new study of the obelisks recently undertaken by Luigi Prada, noted in the bibliography below). The identity of the authors and carvers of these obelisks is unknown, yet, even if an increasingly specialised profession in a land of foreign rulers, there remained an important role for hieroglyph carvers to play, at both a local and an imperial level.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Oxyrhynchus.
Date: 27 October 107.
Language: Greek.
Collection: Egyptian Museum, Cairo (JdE 47429).
DesignationP.Oxy. VII 1029; Sel. Pap. II 316 (papyrological sigla according to the Checklist of Editions). The Greek text is available on the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri.
Bibliography: Allan C. Johnson (1936), An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome. II: Roman Egypt to the Reign of Diocletian (Baltimore), p. 397 [#250]; Thomas Kruse (2002), Der königliche Schreiber und die Gauverwaltung. Untersuchungen zur Verwaltungsgeschichte Ägyptens in der Zeit von Augustus bis Philippus Arabs (30 v. Chr.–245 n.Chr.) (Munich-Leipzig), Vol. II, pp. 716–718.

Select bibliography: hieroglyphs in Roman Egypt:
El Daly, Okasha (2008), Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings (London).
Love, Edward O. D. (2021), Script Switching in Roman Egypt. Case Studies in Script Conventions, Domains, Shift, and Obsolescence from Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic, and Old Coptic Manuscripts (Berlin).
Prada, Luigi (2022), “‘To Isis the Great, Lady of Benevento’: Privately Dedicated Egyptian Obelisks in Imperial Rome and the Twin Obelisks of Benevento Reedited,” in Egypt and the Classical World: Cross-Cultural Encounters in Antiquity, ed. Jeffrey Spier and Sara E. Cole (Los Angeles).
Westerfeld, Jennifer T. (2019), Egyptian Hieroglyphs in the Late Antique Imagination (Philadelphia).

One of the two Benevento Obelisks, today in the Getty. For the recent restoration of the obelisk, see this article by Sara E. Cole, Erik Risser, and William Shelley, “Conserving an Ancient Obelisk” (2018), from which the above photograph is take.

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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