“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.

The First Recorded Strike in History

By Jenny Cromwell

In year 29 of the reign of Rameses III, the workmen of the village of Deir el-Medina – state workers who were responsible for the construction of the royal tombs – went on strike. Consistent late payments and poor working conditions forced them to lay down their tools and walk out of the walled village, in what is the first recorded strike in world history.
The 32-year reign of Rameses III (ca. 1184–1153 BCE), the second king of the 20th dynasty, is well known for several events, notably his military conflicts against the Libyans and Sea Peoples, as well as the schemes within his harem to murder him and change the plan of succession. Such turmoil also had repercussions among the population. War is expensive, as is its aftermath. The so-called Great Harris Papyrus (today in the British Museum, EA9999) records the donations that Rameses III made to temples throughout Egypt following his campaigns, including vast quantities of land, produce, and other commodities. Such redistribution of wealth had a detrimental effect on the royal coffers and as a result on the individuals paid from those resources. Not only were the community of workmen at Deir el-Medina affected, they also left records of their grievances and resulting actions.  
Early in year 29 of his reign, an ostracon today in Berlin sets the prelude of what was to come. While overdue grain delivery is attested intermittently throughout the previous 18th and 19th dynasties, the situation came to a head during Rameses III’s reign, such that the workmen felt they had no other options. Towards the end of the second month of the inundation season, akhet (approximately mid-September), the senior scribe Amennakht recorded how the workmen were two weeks (20 days) without payment. As a stop-gap measure, Amennakht himself went down to the temple of Horemheb to procure grain for the workmen. (As Egypt was not a coinage society, payment was primarily in grain, so money was literally food.) 

Year 29, second month of akhet, day 21. On this day, the scribe Amennakht announced to the crew, saying: ‘Twenty days have passed in the month, and rations have not been given to us!’ He went to the temple of Djeserkheperre-Meryamun (Horemheb) in the estate of Amun. 46 bushels of emmer were brought and was given to them on the second month of akhet, day 23.

O.Berlin P.10633
Left: O.Berlin P.10633 (from Deir el-Medine online). Right: Deir el-Medina (photography by Steve F. E. Cameron; Creative Commons CC-BY-3.0)

While civil unrest was averted on this occasion, it wasn’t long before the suspension of rations occurred again and led to crisis. The dispute between the workmen and government authorities is recorded on a papyrus that is today in Turin and known as the Turin Strike Papyrus. The papyrus is an administrative document that compiles multiple events of importance to the village, including lists of personnel, delivery reports, and judicial matters. Eight entries written over three columns on the front (recto) of the papyrus concern the strike action. Overall, the documented events covered a period of about three months that corresponds to early November to early February (the second month of peret, the growing season, to the first month of shemu, the harvest season).
On day 10 of the second month of peret, the workmen left the community, declaring ‘We are hungry!’ Almost two weeks had passed since they should have been paid. Descending down the mountain, they spent the day in peaceful protest sat behind the temple of Thutmosis III while government officials came out and shouted at them to return.

Year 29, second month of peret, day 10. On this day, the crew passed the five guard-posts of the necropolis area, saying: “We are hungry! For 18 days have already passed in this month”. And they sat down at the rear of the temple of Menkheperre (Thutmosis III). Then the scribe of the enclosed Tomb, the two foremen, the (two) deputies, and the two law enforcement officers came and shouted to them: “Go back, then”. They swore great oaths (saying): “Please come, we have a pronouncement of Pharaoh (l.p.h.”. They spent the day in this place and spent the night in the necropolis area.

P.Turin Cat. 1880: Text 1 (Column 1, lines 1–5)

Two days later (on day 12), the crew again left the village and walked to the temple of Ramesses II (the Ramesseum), spending the night at its entrance. Much of the papyrus here is damaged, but the statements of the crew, as related to officials, survive. Not only did suspension of payment mean hunger, it also meant they couldn’t afford any other essentials.

They told them that they had turned to them from hunger and thirst, for there is neither clothing nor oil, neither fish nor vegetables. They (the officials) should therefore write to Pharaoh, their good lord, and to the vizier, their boss, to provide for their livelihood. The rations for the first month of peret were made available to them on the same day.

Text 3 (col. 1 line 7 – col. 2 line 5)

Rations were provided, but each payment was just a temporary measure, a reaction that plastered over the cracks of more systemic issues. In the following month, two workmen leaving the community were apprehended, but refused to return. The protest of Kenena son of Ruta and Hay son of Huy is testament to how bad the situation was.

We will not return, tell your superiors! Truly, it was not because we hungered that we passed (the walls). We have an important statement to make. Truly, evil is done in this place of Pharaoh!

Text 5 (col 2 lines 6–17)

These memoranda attest to the protracted difficulties the workmen faced and the inability of the state to rectify the economic concerns that these men and their families faced – men responsible for the final resting place of pharaoh! At the end of the fourth month of peret, an entry records a response from the vizier, To. The vizier, however, didn’t visit the community in person, sending a message instead, which noted that the granaries were in essence empty and he had sent along what he could find, which amounted to half of the ration delivery. And, of course, it was still not enough. The final strike entry records how the crew left the village again, just two weeks later, going this time to the temple of Merenptah. There they encounter the mayor of the city, who provides aid until Pharaoh can provide. 

Year 29, first month of shemu, day 13. The crew left the necropolis grounds on, saying: “We are hungry!” They sat down at the rear of the temple of Merenptah (l.p.h.). They called out to the passing mayor of the city, who summoned Mennefer, the gardener of the Chief Overseer of Cattle, who told them that he would give them 50 sacks of emmer for their sustenance until Pharaoh gives you rations.

Text 8 (col. 3 lines 14–18)

And there the entries end, with a final stop-gap measure. But this was certainly not the end of the problem. Further texts record how the workmen passed the walls of the village again later in Rameses III’s reign. Such action took place intermittently throughout the rest of the 20th dynasty, with increased frequency under the reigns of Rameses IX–XI, the final rulers of the New Kingdom. The strikes and their frequency highlight the economic weakness of the state. These 3,000-year old records also remind us that civil disobedience and the government refusal – or inability – to meet workers’ demands is not a modern phenomena.

P.Turin Cat. 1880 ((c) Museo Egizio, Turin; from the online database of the Museo Egizio’s papyrus collection)

Technical Details 
Provenance: Deir el-Medina.
Date: Year 29 of the reign of Rameses III (ca. 1155 BCE).
Language: Late Egyptian; written in the hieratic script.
Collection: Text 1: Berlin, Staatliche Museen P.10633; Text 2: Turin, Museo Egizio P.Turin Cat. 1880.
Designation: N/A. ID on trismegistos.org: Text 1 = TM 136297; Text 2 = TM 139434.
Bibliography: Jean-Christophe Antoine (2009), “The Delay of the Grain Ration and its Social Consequences at Deir el-Medîna in the Twentieth Dynasty: A Statistical Analysis,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 95, pp. 223–234; William F. Edgerton (1951), “The Strikes in Ramses III’s Twenty-Ninth Year,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 10/3, pp. 137–145; Paul J. Frandsen (1990), “Editing Reality: The Turin Strike Papyrus,” in Sarah Israelit-Groll (ed.), Studies in Egyptology Presented to Miriam Lichtheim vol. 1 (Jerusalem), pp. 166–199; Jac J. Janssen (1979), “Background Information on the Strikes of Year 29 of Ramesses III,” Oriens Antiquus 18, pp. 301–308; Jac J. Janssen (1992), “The Year of the Strikes,” Bulletin de la Société d’Égyptologie de Genève 16, pp. 41–49; Matthias Müller (2004), “Der Turiner Streikpapyrus (pTurin 1880),” in Bernd Janowski and Gernot Wilhelm (eds.), Texte zum Rechts- und Wirtschaftsleben (Gütersloh), pp. 165-84. 

Love in an Orchard

Jennifer Cromwell

The scene: young lovers escape the heat of the early afternoon soon for the shade of an orchard. Concealed among the shadows, sheltered under the trees, they lose themselves in each other. Nobody is present to witness their tryst, except for the trees.
From the New Kingdom (ca. 1,539–1,075 BCE) survives a small group of love songs (or poems). One of these poems stands out because it is not written from the perspective of one lover to another, but from that of the trees under whose branches they meet. The trees’ songs reveal a glimpse of the secret lives of young Egyptians, the excitement of love kept hidden from those around them. It is written on a papyrus originally from Deir el-Medina, the village of the workmen who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which today is in the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum) in Turin. While such poems give a suggestion of sensuous intimacy, they probably weren’t to be recited in private to a lover but sung, perhaps at a festival or celebration.

P.Turin 1966. Originally from Deir el-Medina, today in the Museo Egizio, Turin.

Three trees sing their song to the girl. The first tree’s name is lost, but it may be a pomegranate or a persea, for it describes its seeds like her teeth and its fruit like her breasts. The second tree is a sycamore fig, and the third a little sycamore, and all three have their own personality and attitudes towards the young couple.


All that is done by the beloved and her lover [I see],
When they are drunk on wine and pomegranate liquor,
And anointed with oil of moringa and balsam […].
[Every last tree] except me vanishes from the field,
But I pass the (full) twelve months in the orchard.
When I begin to lose my bloom,
Last year’s is (still) within me.
I am the first of my companions,
But I am regarded only as second.
If they do it again, I shall not be silent about them!

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

The first tree is indignant. Even though he – among all the trees in the orchard – is in bloom all year round (and so the first among his companions), he is ignored, “regarded only as second”. If the couple continue to ignore him, he threatens to reveal their secret and prevent their happiness. The second tree also bemoans his neglect by the lovers. Brought to Egypt from afar, and planted in this foreign land for the girl, the sycamore fig serves her, but she has forsaken him.


Though you have no servants,
Yet I am your servant [brought from afar]
As a captive for my beloved.
She caused me to be planted in her orchard,
But she gave me no [water when I needed] to drink,
Nor was my body filled with water from the waterskins.
They find me for pleasure,
[…] because of not drinking.
As my ka endures, my beloved,
Get yourself into my presence!

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

The little sycamore’s song is different. Planted by the girl herself, the tree:


Sends forth its voice to speak,
And the chatter which comes from its mouth
Is (like) a stream of honey.
It is beautiful, and its boughs are lovely; 
It is verdant and flourishing,
Burdened down with notched figs
More crimson than red jasper.
Its leaves are like turquoise, and their hue like faience.
Its wood is like the tinge of feldspar,
And its resin is like the besbes draught.
It attracts him who is not under it,
For its shade is refreshing.

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

Whereas the first two trees demand attention, demand to be acknowledged for what they provide for the girl and her lover, the little sycamore asks for nothing in return, and their secret is safe with it. 


Come and pass the day in happiness,
Tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow,
Even for three days, sitting beneath my shade.

All the while she is with her lover.
Her secret is safe with me,
The beloved one in her adventures.
I am discreet enough not to repeat what I have seen,
And I shall not say (even one) word.

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

What would such an orchard look like? The second and third tree both talk about being planted in this place. They do not belong to a natural landscape but one that is carefully cultivated by its owners. Tomb models and tomb scenes from the Middle and New Kingdom provide indications of what such an orchard would look like. One of the models in the tomb of Meketre, a senior official during the late 11th dynasty and early 12th dynasty, is of a garden and porch (today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC). In the centre of the garden is a pool, which is lined on three sides by sycamore figs, with red fruit growing from their branches. A scene in the 18th dynasty tomb of Nebamun, today in the British Museum, shows a pool full of fish and fowl and surrounded by trees – date-palms, sycamores, and mandrakes. Not everybody would have access to such orchards. But for those who did, the trees offered not only their shade and their fruit, but secluded, private corners for lovers, whether young or old.

Left: the model of a porch and garden from the early 12th dynasty tomb of Meketre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, inv. 2.3.13 (other images are also available on the museum’s online catalogue).
Right: fragment from the tomb of Nebamun, today in the British Museum EA37983, showing a pool surrounded by trees. (c) Trustees of the British Museum.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Deir el-Medina
Date: Dynasty 20, New Kingdom (ca. 1190–1077 BCE). Possibly the reign of Rameses IV (1,155–1,150 BCE)
Language: Late Egyptian (written in the hieratic script)
Collection: Museo Egizio, Turin, P.Turin 1966. 
Designation: P.Turin 1966 / P.Turin Cat. 1966. The poem is one of several texts collected on this papyrus. The museum’s online catalogue contains further information and bibliography about the papyrus, which you can access here.
Bibliography: Edda Bresciani (1969), Letteratura e poesia dell’antico Egitto (Torino: Giulio Einaudi), pp. 443–451; Michael V. Fox (1985), The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press), pp. 44–51 [translation and commentary]; Vincent A. Tobin (2003) “The Love Songs and the Song of the Harper”, in The Literature of Ancient Egypt. An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, edited by William Kelly Simpson (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 319–322 [translation]. 

On Egyptian love poetry: A select bibliography
Cuenca, Esteban Llagostera, and Xesus Rabade Paredes (1995), La Poesía Erótico-Amorosa en el Egipto Faraónico (Ferrol: Esquio).
Fox, Michael V. (1985), The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).
Guglielmi Waltraud (1996), “Die ägyptische Liebespoesie,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms, edited by Antonio Loprieno (Leiden: Brill), 335–347.
Lichtheim, Miriam (1976), Ancient Egyptian Literature II: The New Kingdom (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Mathieu, Bernard (1996), La Poésie Amoureuse de l’Égypte Ancienne: Recherches sur un genre littéraires au Nouvel Empire (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale).
Tobin, Vincent A. (2003) “The Love Songs and the Song of the Harper”, in The Literature of Ancient Egypt. An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, edited by William Kelly Simpson (New Haven: Yale University Press), 307–333.
Vernus, Pascal (1992), Chants d’amour de l’Égypte antique (Paris: Imprimerie).

A Fake Patchwork of Genuine Fragments

Jennifer Cromwell

At a quick glance, a Coptic document today in the collection of the Università di Genova (Italy) looks pretty standard. There is some damage at the edges and a few small holes in the middle. But, otherwise, it looks quite well preserved. However, on closer inspection, things aren’t as they seem. While the writing seems to follow the same lines, the text in one area on the left is written upside down and in different handwriting to everything else. And looking at the rest of the document, even though the handwriting is quite similar, it becomes clear that there are three other fragments: one in the top-centre, one in the bottom-centre, and another at the right. In total, this one piece, which has maximum dimensions of 17.2 cm (width) by 8.2 cm (height), is therefore made up of four unrelated smaller fragments.

P.Genova V 225 (Università di Genova inv. 1330). Image from P.Genova V pl. XXXI

No names – of places or people – survive on these fragments, labelled a–d (their positions are noted on the image above), so their authors can never be identified, nor where they were written or to where they may have been sent. Only minimal details can be determined. At most, fragment c on the right may be traced to a monastic origin, because it refers to ‘the brother’. Of the four fragments, three are certainly from letters. Despite what little survives, this can be established based on the presence of standard formulae, mainly greetings (frag. a) and farewells (frag. c), and addresses to other people (‘and you (plural) will say it’ in frag. d). Fragment d concerns a tax in grain (the embolé-tax), but too much is lost from the other pieces to determine what they were about. As for fragment b, the only noun that can be read is ‘fruit’, but there is too little writing (and much of it is faint) to figure out if this is a letter or some other type of document. 

With so little information about the fragments, their story largely becomes one about their modern history. In particular, why are these four fragments joined together in this way? Given the clear intention of making the manuscript look like a mostly intact document, including substantial upper and lower margins, this must be a modern patchwork. When they were joined together and by whom, before being acquired by the Università di Genova in the mid-20th century, remain unknown. One thing, though, is certain. By gluing the pieces together, four small ancient fragments were made to look like a complete manuscript, and this made them a more attractive and profitable sale item on the antiquities market. On the market, a faked whole is worth more than the sum of its genuine parts.  

Technical Details 
Provenance (findspot): Unknown.
Date: 7th/8th century.
Language: Coptic.
Collection: Università di Genova (Italy), inv. 1330.
Designation: Edited by J. Cromwell and L. Prada in P.Genoa V 225a–d (designation according to the Checklist of Editions). Trismegistos numbers: TM 565480 (frag. a); TM 565481 (frag. b); TM 565482 (frag. c); TM 565484 (frag. d). 
Bibliography: n/a.

Nomads, Mercenaries, and Goldmines: Desert Politics in the Ramesside Period

Julien Cooper

When we think of Egypt’s wealth, our mind often wanders to geological riches. Most of this wealth originated in the Eastern Desert: the gold of Tutankhamun’s mask, the famous Egyptian eye-paints of kohl or malachite, or even the majestic purple porphyry columns that today hold up the roof in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, shipped there by the Egypt’s Roman rulers. A cliché of Ancient Egyptian geography is that the deserts were empty wastes, possessing nothing but mineral wealth that the Egyptians were free to exploit. But we need to acknowledge that these regions, despite their aridity, were home to various indigenous peoples – nomads who are largely shrouded from the historic record. Wandering from well to well with herds of goat and sheep, these peoples were the guardians of much of Egypt’s famous mineral wealth, variably escorting or harassing Egyptian mineral and trade expeditions.
The ancient Egyptian record of the local affairs of these nomads in the Eastern desert is quite stereotyped, usually narrating encounters between Egyptian expeditions and nameless groups of herders. But there is one tantalizing and informative glimpse from the Ramesside period (late New Kingdom) that illustrates just how complex local desert affairs could be. This source consists of a set of letters recorded on a papyrus written in hieratic (cursive) script, today in the Cairo Museum and labelled “papyrus Cairo ESP”. Unfortunately, its original findspot is unknown and it was found in a tin box in the Cairo Museum as one roll of five glued sheets, without any notes that would tell us anything of the find. The papyrus constitutes a set of administrative letters sent by a well-known High-Priest of Amun called Ramessesnakht and mentions the city of Coptos and a fortress in the nearby desert. It would be reasonable to assume that this set of letters belonged to a group of directives sent to expeditions or perhaps an Egyptian fortress in the Eastern Desert. The city of Coptos was the main gateway to the Eastern Desert and provided easy access to desert mines and Red Sea harbours through which Egyptians facilitated trade with distant lands like Punt. 
Despite being a religious institution, the Temple of Amun was dedicated to the task of gold and mineral exploitation. Earlier in his life and well-before writing these letters, Ramessesnakht himself travelled to the Eastern Desert, leaving an inscription at the quarries of Wadi Hammamat, so he was well-versed in the local geography. Considering the sender, these letters almost certainly originated in a temple archive. One section of the letter (C-D) concerns a military escort that the Egyptians employed to guard its gold-washers on their expedition to the goldmines. This military escort consisted of people from the land of Akyet, the name for the deserts east of Lower Nubia (modern Wadi Allaqi). These people, related to the Medjay, spoke a language ancestrally related to Beja, a language still spoken in Eastern Sudan today. This escort had left its homeland in the southern deserts and ventured further north near Coptos to help the Egyptian miners. The other group of nomads mentioned in the papyrus are the Shasu. This group is usually encountered in the Sinai and the Levant and are famous amongst historians for their shadowy origins and connections to Pre-Israelite history. Some Shasu may have even worshipped Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew Bible, and spoke a Semitic language. Here, however, a band of Shasu had come south along the Red Sea coast into the Egyptian Eastern Desert and evidently became a nuisance for Egyptian goldminers. Ramessesnakht, the High-Priest of Amun-Re, and the official in charge of desert expeditions, writes:

The first prophet of Amun-Re, king of the gods, Ramessesnakht said to the feathered-Nubian Anytna, the feathered-Nubian Sisenut, and feathered-Nubian Terebdedi, and the Nubian-soldiers of the hill-country of Akyet… I have learned that you went out as a military-escort together with the miners and gold-washers of the House of Amun-Re…
The strong arm of the Pharaoh, my lord, has cast to the ground the enemies of the Shasu of Mu-qed who were sitting in Qehqeh, on the shore of the sea. Since it is Amun-Re, king of the gods, the great-god, lord of the earth who went with you in order to give to you a hand. Rejoice two times for the many good things that Amun-Re, king of the gods, did for the Pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!), his child, in casting to the ground the enemies of the Shasu who attacked the land of Egypt…
When my letter reaches you, you will establish yourselves in the gold-working-settlement, until the supplies which I sent to you under the responsibility of my scribe and the retainer of mine reach you (the feathered Nubians). And you shall pay-attention to the miners and gold-washers of the house of Amun under my authority so that they will bring this gold for Amun-Re, king of the gods, your lord, to cause that the Shasu may not attack them. And you must not come to transgress in the land of Egypt. As for that which you require, you may send to me a letter and I will cause that it will be brought to you and you will make good servants for Amun-Re, king of the gods, the pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!), your lord, and you will see this: 

The list of the supplies which were for the feathered-Nubians and the Nubians of the land of Akyet who went as a military-escort against the enemies of the Shasu of Mu-qed (the Red Sea) so that the strong arm of the pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!) could cast them to the ground:

25 kilts of thin-cloth
25 kilts of round-tunic
25 metal cups
25 metal knives
25 metal axes bound on a shaft
1000 good loaves of kershet-bread100 cut loaves of iped- and kershet-bread
50 herd assorted herd animals
5 carrying-donkeys
1 bag of condiments (?)
1 bag of ingredients

Papyrus Cairo ESP, sections C–D; trans. Julien Cooper
Left: Helck’s transcription of the latter part of the text (Helck 1967). The original photographs of the papyri remained unpublished. Right: Map of Egypt & Nubia with locations of places in the text (by Julien Cooper over Google Earth image)

The letters describe a complicated vision of desert politics involving vying nomads, goldminers, and the priests of Amun. Underpinning Egypt’s gold exploitation was conflict and alliances involving two rival nomadic groups, the Nubians of Akyet and the Shasu. They likely spoke different languages and had different customs, and the Egyptians seem to have taken advantage of these differences by employing one group of desert experts to fight against the other and protect its miners. A battle ensued at the place of Qehqeh, somewhere on the Red Sea (Egyptian Mu-qed) coast. With the divine patronage of Amun and the Pharaoh, the Akyet nomads were victorious but were urged to keep vigilant, protecting the gold washers in a gold-working settlement. This arrangement between Ramessesnakht and the Akyet nomads, despite being successful in this instance, was not an altogether comfortable situation for the Egyptians. Ramessesnakht warns Anytna, Sisenut, and Terebdidi not to attack Egypt on their mission, alluding to the fact that that the Akyet people sometimes went rogue and raided Egyptian lands. Egyptian campaign texts from Nubian fortresses speak of these same Akyet-nomads thieving grain from the Egyptians. On this instance, the Akyet nomads were rewarded for their efforts with rations and supplies of clothing, bread, knives, and livestock so that they could continue their conflict against the Shasu, perhaps carving out their own territory in the desert and using Egyptian patronage to further their goals.
Just what the phrase “feathered-Nubians” means in this text is unclear and has few parallels in administrative documents. Some consider this phrase as specifically referring to the headmen in charge of nomads, thus making Anytna, Sisenut, and Terebdidi, the chiefs of their tribes. But Egyptian art often depicts Nubians (as well as Libyans) as donning ostrich feathers (as shown in the scene from the tomb of Amenhotep-Huy below). Perhaps in this dossier it is the administrative jargon to specifically mark out ‘allied’ Nubians specifically.
Although this text is unique in the politics of the Eastern Desert, the general narrative and pattern here is common in world history and conjures identical ‘divide and conquer’ politics ever-present amongst imperialistic states and colonial encounters. From the Roman invasion of Gaul, to Cortes’ courting of his Tlaxcala allies against the Aztecs, to the British East India companies’ alliances with local princes, empires achieved their objectives by hiring foreigners well-versed in local affairs and pitted them against their foes. For the Egyptians who had little experience in the notoriously dangerous conditions of the Eastern Desert, the hiring of local desert specialists was a necessity. 

Nubians donning feathers, from the tomb of Amenhotep Huy, Viceroy in the reign of Amenhotep III (Theban Tomb 40)

Technical Details 
Provenance: Unknown, likely from an archive belonging to the Temple of Amun, but whether this copy was archived at the Temple of Amun at Karnak or Coptos (or the fortress temple) is unknown.
Date: Ramesses IX (1129–1111 BC)
Language: Late Egyptian (hieratic script)
Collection: Cairo Museum.
Designation: Various; often “Papyrus Cairo ESP”; “P. Cairo C-D”. Also referred to as KRI VI, 519-522 (Kenneth A. Kitchen (1982), Ramesesside Inscriptions. Vol. 6: Ramesses IV to XI and Contemporaries)
Bibliography: Wolfgang Helck (1967), “Eine Briefsammlung aus der Verwaltung des Amuntempels,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 6, pp. 146–151; Edward Wente (1990), Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta), pp. 38–39 [#38]; Julien C. Cooper (2020, Toponymy on the Periphery: Placenames of the Eastern Desert, Red Sea, and South Sinai (Leiden), pp. 198–200, 460–461, 494–495.

Death of a Slave Boy

Jennifer Cromwell

Cymbals struck as festival performers wound their way through the village’s streets . But then tragedy struck. Leaning over the balcony to view the players below, a young slave boy Epaphroditos fell and died. Was it an accident? Was it murder?
This tragic event took place in year 23 of the reign of the emperor Commodus (182 CE), when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire. We know of Epaphroditos’ death because a document was drawn up on 3 November (the Egyptian date Hathyr 7) that recorded its aftermath. This document, referred to by the designation P.Oxy. III 475, was written by Hierax, a senior official (strategos) of the Oxyrhynchite nome, to an assistant, Claudius Serenos. In it, Hierax instructs Serenos to go to the village Senepta, together with a public physician, to examine the dead body, following a request by Leonides alias Serenos, the father-in-law of Epaphroditos
owner, Ploution son of Aristodemos. The doctor’s verdict is not recorded, nor the actions that subsequently occurred, but appended to Hierax’s note is a copy of Leonides’ original petition.

“… At a late hour of yesterday the sixth while there was a festival in Senepta and cymbal-players were giving the performance as custom has it in front of the house of my son-in-law, Ploution the son of Aristodemos, his slave Epaphroditos aged about 8 years, wishing to lean over from the flat-roof of the said house to see the cymbal-players, fell and was killed. Presenting therefore this request I ask, if it please you, that you dispatch one of your assistants to Senepta so that the body of Epaphroditos may receive the suitable layout out and burial. …”

P.Oxy. III 475; Translation from Jean Straus (2014)
P.Oxy. III 475. Image taken from the Bonhom’s online sale catalogue.



Epaphroditos, as a slave, was legally a ‘thing’ (Latin res) owned by his master, Ploution. So why did the owner’s family petition the district’s senior official to examine the boy’s body, rather than just dispose of it, like any other broken possession? As Jean Straus has proposed in his commentary on this case, this document suggests that there were limits to the power of masters over their slaves. Straus suggests two possible reasons why the petition was sent to Hierax. One reason may be rooted in purely economic concerns, to confirm the slave’s death and so free Ploution from paying taxes concerning him. The second reason could connect this case to a Roman law that imposed penalties on a master who unjustifiably killed his slave. If the doctor determined the boy had been wilfully murdered, Ploution could have been punished. Did Leonides want his son-in-law to be in trouble with the law, regardless of whether he actually expected him of murder? Or was Leonides acting to support Ploution and protect him from somebody else’s accusations?

“For in accordance with a constitution of the Divine Antoninus Pius anyone who kills his slave without cause must not be punished less than one who kills another’s slave.”

Justinian, Institutes 1.8.2; Translation from Jean Straus (2014)

Other questions also arise. There is no mention of Epaphroditos’ parents. Were they also owned by the family, and could have accused Ploution of murdering their son? Or was the boy a foundling, a child abandoned by his parents? Examples of such exposed children becoming slaves are recorded in other documents, as discussed by Katherine Blouin in her post ‘Baby Exposed, Baby Snatched’. With only snippets of this family’s life, it’s impossible to determine whether this was in fact a tragic accident, or a cover-up of a master disposing of his unwanted slave. 

Notes on the papyrus
This papyrus was excavated by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt at Oxyrhynchus in 1897 (a time when they removed vast amounts of papyri from the site). In 1902, the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society) presented this document among others to the Charterhouse School in Surrey. In 2002, the Charterhouse Collection was sold at Sotherby’s, and this papyrus (together with a small fragment of another document) was sold at a Bonham’s auction on 28 November 2018 to a private collector for over £40,000. Its current location is not known to the public.

Sketch of Oxyrhynchus by Baron Vivant Denon, 1798. Source: Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts, Virtual Exhibition

Technical Details 
Provenance: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. 
Date: 3 November 182 CE.
Language: Greek.
Collection: Private collection; previously Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surrey. Last sold, together with a small fragment from Oxyrhynchus, on 28 November 2018 at Bonhams (London) for £43,750.
Designation: P.Oxy. III 475 (according to the Checklist of Editions). Trismegistos TM 20611.
Bibliography: Heinz Heinen, “Amtsärztliche Untersuchung eines toten Sklaven. Überlegungen zu P. Oxy. III 475,” in A. Marcone (ed.), Medicina e società nel mondo antico (Florence, 2006), pp. 194–202; Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt under Roman Rule (Ann Arbor, 1983), p. 106; Jean A. Straus, L’esclave: Recueil de documents papyrologiques (Liège, 2004), pp. 18–20 [text 11] – available online here; Jean A. Straus, ‘9.2.1. Investigation into the death of a slave’, in James G. Keenan, Joe G. Manning, and Uri Yiftach-Firanko (eds), Law and Legal Practice in Egypt (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 455–6; John G. Winter, Life and Letters in the Papyri (Ann Arbor, 1933), p. 133.

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.

Acknowledgement
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

A Cow by Any Other Name

Jennifer Cromwell

An archive from the Fayum dated to the 340s CE opens a window onto the life of a Roman garrison commander in Egypt. Flavius Abinnaeus was appointed to the command of the cavalry unit (ala) at Dionysias in the western part of the Fayum, and his professional and private activities are known from a number of papyrus documents that have survived. As important as this archive is and as much as it has been studied for Roman military history, a sale contract from this group catches the eye for a completely different reason. Soldiers named their cows.
One document from the archive is a sale contract dated 28 July 346 – it can be dated absolutely because the emperors Constantius II and Constans are named within the dating formula. This contract records that Abinnaeus purchased two cows from a soldier, Flavius Elias, who was seconded to the camp at Dionysias. As is standard with legal documents, much of the text itself is legalise introducing the parties and confirming the sale. The sale itself is noted in a few lines:

“… he has sold to Flavius Abinnaeus the cows hereafter mentioned, two in number, perfect, one black, Sale[..]u by name, the other dirty-coloured (?), Teeiaei by name, and I have received from you the price agreed between us, the capital sum of twelve hundred talents, tal. 1200, of silver of the imperial currency, in full, hand down. And I warrant the sale with full warranty against any person who questions it or lays claims against it. The purchaser Abinnaeus has taken the cows away from here such as they are, irrevocably.”

P.Abinn. 60 (translation from the edition by Harold Bell et al.)

Not only are the two cows described, but they are named! The first cow’s name is partially lost, Sale[..]u, but that of the second cow survives in full: Teeiaei (a variation of the Egyptian female name Teeiaeis). Sale[..] is black, Teeiaei is maybe a dark brown (the editors provide the translation ‘dirty-coloured’ as a guess). And both are perfect. Together, they are sold for 1,200 silver talents. This is the equivalent of approximately 40 artabas of grain, a volume that equates to a bit over 1,000 litres. 

Different coloured cows from a much earlier period, the New Kingdom, from the Theban tomb of Nebamun, dated ca. 1350 BCE. Today in the British Museum, EA 37976 (c) Trustees of the British Museum.

But Elias, their original owner, was not alone in naming his cows, that is, if he was even the one to name them. On the back of a grain account is a list of sales for the village Andromachis, as well as other villages in the Fayum, including Theadelphia. The list includes sales of sheep, goats, horses, and cows, sometimes with descriptions, but not always. A soldier called Elias is mentioned with two cows, perhaps the Elias mentioned above who sold Sale[..]u and Teeiaei, but the cows aren’t given names here. However, two entries later in the list do include names:

Heron son of Ation, a full-grown cow named Taepis: 600 silver talents

P[…]aeis from Theoxenis, one heifer, named Pipaeis: 800 silver talents

P.Abinn. 80 (translation from the edition by H. I. Bell et al.)

What’s particularly notable from this whole list is that only the cows are named. While it would be impractical to name all ten sheep that appear in one of the entries (sold by Sakaon son of Stabous, from Theadelphia), many of the entries in this list are for a single animal. So why are only these cows named? Is it because only some cows were named, or only some owners thought the names were a distinguishing point and should be noted? Or were these particular animals special? Whatever the reason, small details like this are easily overlooked – or not thought worthy of discussion – but are important for understanding the relationship of people to the world and the animals that lived alongside us.

If you’re interested in other evidence for animal naming from the ancient world, check out this post about A Donkey Called Rameses.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Dionysias, a village in the western Fayum.
Date: 340s CE (P.Abinn. 60 = 28 July 346). 
Language: Greek.
Collection: Bibliothèque de Genève (P.Abinn. 60 = P.Gr. 6; P.Abinn. 80 = P.Gr. 36 verso).
DesignationP.Abinn. 60 (=P.Gen. I 48); P.Abinn. 80 (=P.Sakaon 54; SB VIII 9697 verso); according to the Checklist of Editions.
Bibliography (on Abinnaeus more generally): Richard Alston (1995), Soldier and Society in Roman Egypt: A Social History (London: Routledge) – see especially pp. 148 onwards [accessible in part on GoogleBooks]; Roger S. Bagnall (1992), “Military Officers as Landowners in Fourth Century Egypt”, in Chiron 22, pp. 47–54 [read online here]; Timothy D. Barnes (1985), “The Career of Abinnaeus”, Phoenix 39, pp. 368–374 [available on JStor for those with access]; Roger Rémondon (1965), “Militaires et civils dans une campagne égyptienne au temps de Constance II,” in Journal des Savants 1965, pp. 132–143 [read online here]
.

Left: P.Abinn. 60 (P.Gr.6); Right: P.Abinn. 80 (P.Gr.36v). Both (c) Bibliothèque du Genève

A Woman Doing Business

Jennifer Cromwell

A short letter from Antinoopolis (Sheikh Ibada) in central Egypt gives a glimpse into the life of a woman living in a major city sometime around the 7th century CE. In this letter, Tagape the daughter of Tromres (or possibly Tagape the woman from the south, as her mother’s name here could be read this way) writes to a man, Andreas, and his daughter, who is unnamed. She may have written the letter herself – there is no explicit reference to this, but some women at this time certainly were literate and capable of such things. The letter foregoes any niceties and gets right down to business. 

“Give it (to) Andre(as) and his daughter.
I, Tagape (daughter of) Tromres, write to Andreas. I set for you and your children three gold holokottinoi and three artabas of seed.
You (fem.) urged me and I exempted your (fem.) brother Andron.
Shenoute wants Susanna to write south [..] to him about you (fem.) […]”

British Museum EA 63781 (SB Kopt. V 2181)
Letter from Tagape to Andreas and his daughter (c) The British Museum, EA 63781

The first point is to notify Andreas that she has set for him an amount of three gold coins (holokottinoi) and three artbas of seed (around 75–80 litres). Tagape doesn’t state what this money is for, but from what follows – the exemption of a family member – indicates that this is what Andreas and his family owe her, presumably as repayment for a loan. Women as moneylenders in Egypt at this time are well-attested, with the business activities of the woman Koloje from Djeme (the village at Medinet Habu in western Thebes) being especially well-known. You can read about Koloje in Terry Wilfong’s, Women of Jeme (2002), which is available online here.

In the second part, Tagape turns her attention from Andreas to his daughter. She still does not mention her name, but the Coptic itself makes the change clear by a shift from masculine to feminine pronouns – a fact that English translations obscure with ‘you/your’ being gender neutral (I’ve used ‘fem.’ to note the Coptic gender in the above translation). Tagape assures her that her brother Andron won’t be liable for repaying the money and seed, and also passes on a message that a man, Shenoute, wants another woman, Susanna, to write to him about our unnamed daughter of Andreas. So much is contained in such a brief letter – but only essential details that cut out any superfluous information, which would be known to everybody involved. This brevity is why letters can sometimes be frustrating for the modern reader. They give us hints about relationships and events in people’s lives, but leave us wanting more.

For Antinoopolis, this letter is especially significant. Despite being a major city, surprisingly few Coptic non-literary texts (letters, legal documents, receipts, etc.) have survived from there, or at least have been identified as being from there. And so, while it may seem like a rather innocuous little letter, it adds to our knowledge of women, and their economic role, as well as the language of Coptic texts from Antinoopolis during this period.

An Editor’s Journey
I originally edited and published this letter a decade ago, after Elisabeth O’Connell asked me if I was interested in it, as part of the work she was doing on the material from Antinoopolis in the British Museum. You can read about the this material in her article noted in the bibliography below. As with a lot of editing work, it consumed me for a short time, its publication made the text available to the wider community, and I then largely didn’t think about it again. That is, until a recent social media post brought it back to my attention (thank you, Sarah Bond!). Apart from revisiting the text, reading through my commentary made it clear how philological discussion can be impenetrable to non-specialists – I myself had to read through some of my points a couple of times to get back into my old mindset. Could I have phrased some things differently? Were there things that I didn’t discuss that would have been useful? The answer to both points is probably yes. Text editions are not definitive – they reflect the understanding of a single editor (or perhaps editors) and we shouldn’t be precious about admitting that our work can be improved, especially with time, better (or newer) understandings, and fresh eyes. 

Technical Details
Provenance: Antinoopolis (Sheikh Ibada).
Date: 6–8 century CE.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: British Museum, EA 63781.
Designation: SB Kopt. V 2181 (designation according to the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: Jennifer Cromwell, “A Coptic Letter from Antinoopolis in the British Museum,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 183 (2012), pp. 222–226; Elisabeth O’Connell, “John de Monins Johnson 1913/14 Egypt Exploration Fund Expedition to Antinoupolis (Antinoë), with Appendix of Objects,” in Rosario Pintaudi (ed.), Antinoupolis II (Florence, 2014), pp415–504 [p. 484, #42].

The third volume of Rosario Pintaudi’s edited publication of material and excavation reports from Antinoopolis is available open access here. It includes publication of a wide range of material.

Ancient Same Sex Love Spells

Jennifer Cromwell

Magic in the ancient world provided one means to help people deal with what life threw at them, whether health, money, or love, among the whole gambit of human day-to-day experiences. In some cases, spells were written for certain people, with the object of the spell as well as the spell’s user named within the text. Other spells were less specific, with places holders (‘so-and-so’) instead of the name, meaning they could be used by whoever had need. An example of such a spell is this one to attract a woman. Here, we’ll never know who used this spell or the identity of the woman who was the focus of their desire. However, with spells that name both parties, we get a rare glimpse into individual lives and – in the case of love spells – individual desire. And, in a small number of instances, love spells with names provide clear evidence for same-sex desire.

Love Spells between Women

In 1889, a relatively small piece of papyrus, torn at the bottom, was found in the cemetery at Hawara, located at the entrance to the Fayum depression. Dating to the 2nd century CE and written in Greek, the text itself is a love spell in which Herais daughter of Thermoutharin adjures a deceased spirit (Euangelos) and the gods to attract and bind to her Sarapias daughter of Helen. The wandering, restless souls of deceased spirits were frequently called upon in spells, with the promise of eternal rest in store for carrying out such demands. Note how the combination of Egyptian and Greek gods (Anubis and Hermes respectively) reflects the multicultural world of Egypt during this time. In total, the refrain ‘to attract and bind’ is repeated three times and a series of magical words, or voces magicae, imbue the spell with added power – they would have been understandable to the beings invoked.

“I adjure you, Euangelos, by Anubis and Hermes and all the rest down below; attract and bind Sarapias, whom Helen bore, to this Herais, whom Thermoutharin bore, now, now; quickly, quickly. By her soul and heart attract Sarapias herself, whom <Helen> bore from her own womb. [magical words: MAEI OTE ELBOSATOK ALAOUBETO OEIO […] AEN]. …”

P.Hawara 312 = PGM 32; translation from Brooten, Love Between Women, p. 78
P.Hawara 312 (c) University College London

Jumping ahead a bit in time to the 3rd or 4th century, a lead tablet found in el-Ashmunein (Greek Hermopolis) bears 62 lines of Greek text in a small hand. As with the previous spell, he user of this one, Sophia daughter of Isara, invokes the spirit of a deceased male – “a fire-breathing daemon”, a “corpse-daemon” – to inflame the heart of her intended target, Gorgonia daughter of Nilogenia. Gorgonia will be targeted at the bathhouse, where her flushed, naked skin would be washed by an attendant – the daemon in disguise who will work its erotic magic, setting a burning desire within her.

“… Listen and do everything quickly, in no way opposing me in the performance of this action; for you are the governors of the earth. [section of magical language] By means of this corpse-daemon, inflame the heart, the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, with love and affection for Sophia, whom Isara bore. Constrain Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, to cast herself into the bathhouse for the sake of Sophia, whom Isara bore; and you [=the king of the underworld deities], become a bath-woman. Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love for Sophia, whom Isara bore. Drive Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, drive her, torment her body night and day, force her to rush forth from every place and every house, loving Sophia, whom Isara bore, she, surrendered like a slave, giving herself and all her possessions to her, because this is the will and command of the great god [section of magical language] …”

PSI I 28 = Suppl.Mag. I 42; translation Brooten, Love Between Women, pp. 84–86

The remaining lines (two-thirds of the whole text) repeat the same point and invoke multiple deities. The repetition and use of formulary and magical words, in both texts we’ve seen, remind us that the power of the language and invocations don’t come from the women themselves, but the (male) professional who wrote this piece. How Herais and Sophia expressed their desire will never be known.

PSI I 28, image from Brooten, Love Between Women (pl. 8)

Love Spells between Men

Moving still further in time, a Coptic text on a square of parchment provides the only example in that language (rather than Greek) of a love spell between men. Unfortunately, the provenance of the spell is unknown, but the dialect suggests somewhere in middle Egypt, and the date is broadly 6th/7th century. A man Apapolo son of Nooe uses a powerful invocation to bind another man, Phlo son of Maure. Phlo will be unable to rest until he finds Apapolo and his desire is satisfied. 

[magical words: Celtatalbabal. Karašneife Nnas Kneife, by the power of Iao Sabaoth! Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous]
“I adjure you by your powers and your phylacteries and the places upon which you dwell and your names that in the way that I will take you and place you at the door and the path of Phlo the son of Maure, you will take his heart, his mind (?), you will master his whole body! If he stands you will not let him stand, if he sits you will not let him sit, if he sleeps you will not let him sleep! He will seek after me from village to village, from city to city, from field to field, from land to land, until he comes to me and he subjects himself beneath my feet – me, Apapolo, the son of Nooe – his hands filled with all good things, until I fulfil with him the desire of my heart and the request of my soul in a good desire and an unbreakable affection, now, now, quickly, quickly, do my work!”

Ashmolean 1981.940; translation from the Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects (KYP T19; by Love, Dosoo, Markéta)

The original edition of this text, and so also subsequent translations, rendered the name of the spell wielder as Papapolo, but the revised reading follows work on the original parchment that Ed Love and I undertook several years ago. This revised reading with accompanying notes is available on the Kyprianos Database (links below).

A Final Note

A final note on the stories that these spells tell brings us to their modern history and the responses they received from the scholars who published them or wrote soon after their publication. Richard Wünsch argued that Herais, far from trying to attract Sarapias, was in fact cursing her (and more, that she herself was actually dead, having also been the victim of a curse spell). In the case of Apapolo’s spell to attract Phlo, the original editor Paul Smither, writing in 1939, referred to “The embarrassing identity of the sex charmer and charmed …” In other spells, not included here, the gender of one party had been modified by editors to create heterosexual situations – a century ago, it was sometimes easier to assume a grammatical error and unintentional pronouns (often connected with unusual names) than it was to understand the situation involved. But, this is no longer the accepted position, and what these love spells show us is that same-sex attraction was a very real thing in the ancient world.

*For further information about all the texts, and generally for magic from late Roman and early Islamic Egypt, check out the excellent Kyrianos Database, provided as part of the project Coptic Magical Papyri: Vernacular Religion in Late Roman and Early Islamic Egypt at Würzburg (links for specific texts are provided below).
As general bibliography, Bernadette J. Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996) is a great starting point for discussion on the topic and can be read online here.

Technical Details: Text 1 (Herais and Sarapias)
Provenance: Hawara, Egypt
Date: 2nd century CE
Language: Greek
Collection: University College London, P. Hawara inv. 312.
Designation: PGM 32 (Papyri Graecae Magicae = Greek Magical Papyri)
Bibliography: Joseph G. Milne (1913), “The Hawara Papyri,” Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, 5 (1913), p. 393; Richard Wünsch (1913), “Zusatz zu Nr. 312”, Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, 5 (1913), p. 397; Karl Preisendanz (1931), Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri, Vol. 2 (Leipzig/Berlin: Teubner), p. 157–8 [no. 32]; Hans D. Betz (1992), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Including the Demotic Spells(Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 266; Korshi Dosoo, Edward O.D. Love, and Markéta Preininger (chief editors), “KYP M483,” Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects: accessed here.

Technical Details: Text 2 (Sophia and Gorgonia)
Provenance: el-Ashmunein, Egypt (Greek Hermopolis)
Date: 3rd/4th century CE
Language: Greek
Collection: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, inv. 14487.
DesignationPSII 28 (siglum according to the Checklist of Editions); Suppl.Mag.I 42.
Bibliography: Medea Norsa (1911), “Editio princeps de PSI I 28 (ll. 1-62),” in Omaggio al IV convegno dei classicisti tenuto a Firence dal 18 al 20 aprile del 1911 (Florence), pp. 20–6 [no. 5]; Robert W. Daniel and Franco Maltomini (1990), Supplementum Magicum. Vol. 1 (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag), pp. 132–53 [no. 42] Korshi Dosoo, Edward O.D. Love, and Markéta Preininger (chief editors), “KYP M486,” Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects: accessed here.

Technical Details: Text 3
Provenance: Egypt (unprovenanced)
Date: 6th/7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Hermopolitan dialect)
Collection: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, inv. AN 1981.940.
Bibliography: Paul C. Smither (1939), “A Coptic Love-Charm,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology25, pp. 173–4; Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (1999), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power(Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 177–8 [no. 84]; Korshi Dosoo, Edward O.D. Love & Markéta Preininger (chief editors), “KYP T19: Applied love spell for Apa Apollo against Phlo,” Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects: accessed here.