Settling Disputes, Casting Lots

By Jennifer Cromwell

Families in late antique Egypt regularly fought over property rights. At least, that’s the impression given by the textual record from some villages, among which a common category of legal documents is those that record settlements of disputes. It is not always clear, though, if the disputes were hostile or simply that mediation was necessary to determine who would receive what specific rooms, especially in inherited houses that needed to be divided between multiple family members. Local officials who mediated the cases and documents often simply say that ‘they distributed lots’. What does this mean and how did these officials reach their decisions? Thanks to short texts on ostraca, we can see how these lots were cast.
Officials divided the property in question into different parcels and these individual divisions were written on ostraca. An ostracon in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UC62880 (published as O.CrumVC 13), bears one such division:

“He who will receive the southern veranda will take the tenth(?) that is outside the house. The entrance room, the stone porch, the area below the entrance room, the storage room, the well, the staircase, and the storage room will be communal.”

O.CrumVC 13 (translation: J. Cromwell)

A short line precedes the main text, which is partially broken and difficult to read, but it should state the identity of the property in question. This ostracon and the others connected with the same property would have been distributed to the parties involved, as a lottery – each share was equal and so the parties received an equal part from the house, thereby ensuring that there was no possible bias in the decision-making process. Here, the person who received this ostraon acquired the veranda on the southern side of the house (a room which was open to the air on at least one side, either entirely or with columns supporting the roof), a part of the land outside the house, and also equal access to a number of communal rooms. We know that this was a common practice to settle disputes because several ostraca provide evidence of the same practice. In the Petrie Museum’s collection alone, three other Coptic ostraca record similar, albeit longer and more complex, divisions. Unfortunately, they are all broken in places and the extent of the individual parcels does not survive. These ostraca are: UC62875 (O.CrumVC 12), UC62847 (O.CrumVC 15), and UC62841 (O.CrumVC 16).

Left: O.CrumVC 13 (UC62880); Right: O.CrumVC 14 (UC62867). Images from the Petrie Museum’s online catalogue (links below)

Another ostracon is slightly different. Rather than note the parcel to be distributed, UC62867 (O.CrumVC 14) names the individual involved: “Susanna shall receive the upper storage room before the door and the veranda, which is to be opened up(?).” In this case, the mediators themselves may have specified who received what, or this ostracon marks the final decision and no long papyrus legal document was written that recorded her share – having a papyrus document written up would have been a much more expensive venture!
It is possible that some of these ostraca come from the village Djeme (built in and around Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Rameses III), which is especially well documented during the 7th and 8th centuries. Until the 1920s, remains of houses from this period survived, but they were removed to reveal the original ground level of the pharaonic temple. Photographs and plans of the houses provide an impression of the ground floor layout and cellars of over 130 houses. Houses had an entrance room, containing a recess for large water containers, which led to another room and staircase – the type of common rooms mentioned in the first ostracon above. Today, remains of these late houses are only visible on the edges of the temple complex, where they were built on top of the ancient mudbrick perimeter wall.

Houses from Djeme (Medinet Habu), showing numbering given by Uvo Hölscher. Photograph from the Oriental Institute, Chicago, Expedition (from Hölscher, Medinet Habu V, 1954)

[Note: This post was originally written by me for the Petrie Museum’s ‘Papryi for the People’ project in 2017. Those posts were not published but material has been included in the Petrie’s online Catalogue for the respective entries, for which see the hyperlinks below, which unfortunately do not credit the contributors involved.]

Technical Details (for both ostraca)
Provenance: Probably western Thebes.
Date: 8th century? Note that the Petrie catalogue notes ‘Byzantine Period’, but it is surely late 7th/8th century based on the handwriting and because Coptic was mainly used for writing legal documents (and associated texts) during this time (the early Islamic period).
Language: Coptic.
Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London. UC62880 and UC62867.
DesignationO.CrumVC 13 and 14 (according to the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: Walter Till, Erbrecthliche Untersuchungen auf Grund der koptischen Urkunden (Vienna, 1954), 226 [both texts]; Walter Till, Die koptischen Rechtsurkunden aus Theben (Vienna, 1964), 237 [both texts].

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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