When dealing with ancient texts, the term ostracon refers to pottery sherds and limestone flakes that were reused to write documents. Pottery is by far the more common material used, but some areas show a particular preference for limestone. They are especially well-known from Egypt, but the practice occurs across the ancient world; see, e.g., this example from Israel. The term itself comes from ancient Greece and the practice of writing names of individuals expelled (ostracised) from Athens on potsherds.
Typically, the sherds used are large enough (or small enough) to be held comfortably in one hand. However, on occasion an abnormally large piece was used. One of the best-known examples of a huge limestone ostracon comes from late New Kingdom Egypt (ca. 1,295–1,069 BCE) and the village Deir el-Medina in western Thebes. Now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, this ostracon is about 1 m in length and bears the text of the literary work TheTale of Sinuhe. Another unusual example, this time on pottery, comes from Roman Egypt and the site of Mons Claudianus in the eastern desert. This pot was used to write two-syllable words beginning with the Greek letter pi and also has a drawing of a man. The text is written on the neck and shoulder of the original amphora, turned upside down (so the entire top section of the vessel). How was it written? Did the writer plant the narrow end in the sand in front of them as they sat cross-legged on the ground?
But what were ostraca used for? What are their modern equivalents? Being plentiful, easily accessible, and freely available, they were used for a wide variety of purposes: scrap paper, post-it notes, notebooks, text messages/SMS, postcards, cards, emails. Despite their reused nature, they could be used for correspondence between officials or receipts for purchases or tax payments, while also being used to doodle or draw cartoons. Figural sketches from the New Kingdom on limestone flakes show a range of subject matter, from the sublime to the ridiculous (including satirical cartoons showing societal and natural order turned upside-down), from the bawdy to the serious.
A couple of case studies written by a monk living in early 8th century CE western Thebes show the kind of day-to-day messages that ostraca were used for. Frange lived in what is now referred to as Theban Tomb 29, on Sheikh Abd el-Qurna. For most of his time there, he lived alone, but hundreds of texts written in Coptic found in the tomb and in other places reveal his social networks and how and why he interacted with people – other monks and villagers alike. Some messages were short and contained a short question or request – the kind of thing that we would send a quick text message about today. Other messages were longer, but mostly polite with generic questions about health and well-being, and maybe adding a question or two – like an ancient postcard or short letter.
Two ostraca by Frange fitting these descriptions were found from the village Djeme (Medinet Habu), a kilometre or so from where he lived. In the first, after polite hellos, he asks a man Pher to come visit him. In the second, Frange writes to Theodore, but adds greetings to other people that he knows and prays that one of them recovers from his illness. Today we have an abundance of ways to communicate such messages, in typed or handwritten form. But in the ancient world, ostraca fulfilled all these functions. Perhaps they weren’t the text message of the ancient world, but they weren’t all that dissimilar.
One of the great advantages of ostraca over other media, such as papyrus or parchment, for the study of the ancient world is their often ephemeral and informal nature. They provide a window into people’s lives that we typically don’t see from papyrus. Being more expensive and harder to get hold of for many people, papyrus documents typically contain more formal types of texts, recording major events, whether personal or public. But the stories that ostraca tell are often more intimate, revealing the minutiae of daily life and relationships, and the very real and practical concerns of the men and women who wrote them.
Technical Details (Greek amphora) Provenance: Mons Claudianus, Egypt Date: 2nd century CE Language: Greek Collection: storeroom in Qift, Egypt (inv. 7861) Designation: O.Claud. II 415 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Technical Details (both Coptic ostraca) Provenance: Djeme, western Thebes, Egypt Date: Early 8th century CE Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect) Collection: Egyptian museum, Cairo? (possibly the Coptic Museum; they were returned to Egypt from Chicago after they were published in 1954) Designation: O.Medin.Habu Copt. 138 and 139 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
On 17 April 731, an Egyptian priest John son of the late Victor wrote a declaration for the state treasury, represented by the Muslim official Rashid. He had paid two gold coins (holokottinos in the document) for his village’s taxes, representing the headman, Peter. However, it turned out that he – and so his village – had paid half a gold coin too much.
“I, the humblest priest John the son of the late Victor from Tpulê-nHobn in the northern district of this city, Shmoun, write to the state treasury, namely our lord Rashid the most famous amirof this city Shmoun and its nome. The deacon Peter, the head of Tpulê-nHobn, gave two gold coinsso that I could bring them to you and pay them for the stichos-tax of this village. I have paid them to you today, Parmoute 22 in this 14thindiction year, but I paid halfa gold coin too much, beyond what was incumbent upon me and what was assigned to me, and you returned it to me, so that I can take it and repay it to the deacon Peter, the headman.”
The particular tax here, the stichos, was not a regular tax but an exceptional one. It occurs infrequently in our records and the amount involved is only small, especially as this is on behalf of the whole village of Tpulê-nHobn, part of the city Hermopolis (Coptic Shmoun, modern el-Ashmunein) – even though John says ‘what was assigned to me’, it’s clear that the money is from his whole community.
The early decades of the eighth century witnessed a huge increase in the volume of taxation documentation throughout the country, written in each of the three languages used in Egypt at that time: Arabic, the language of the rulers (who had conquered Egypt in 642); Greek, the language of the previous rulers and for a millennium the language of Egypt’s administration; and Coptic, the last phase of the ancient Egyptian language. Tax payments didn’t always come in on time – in fact, a lot of our evidence shows that taxes were frequently paid in arrears and officials often had to resort to strong language and measures (see this threatening letter, for example). But, on the other hand, this document demonstrates that when Egyptians did pay too much, the excess was returned.
To make sure that the money was returned to Peter and the village – and that John didn’t take it and run – Rashid asked John to have this declaration drawn up. Not only would this document help ensure the money went back to the right place, it also protected the state treasury from accusations of unfair treatment. Such behaviour and careful recording of tax payments and overpayments may be the result of accusations of unfair tax allocation and mistreatment of Egyptian taxpayers.
“You asked for this declaration from me, in writing. Now, I declare, first, that you gave this half a gold coin to me, today – as already recorded – from your hand to mine. Afterwards, I am ready to take this half a gold coin and give it to the deacon Peter, the headman of my village, complete and without contempt, everything of mine being pledged.”
At the end of the document, the scribe of the document, the public notary Eustephios, signs on behalf of John, who is illiterate. Another man, Justa son of the late Mark, also witnesses the document.
As for the official named in the text, Rashid can be identified as the well-known official Rashid ibn Chaled, who was pagarch of Hermopolis at this time, having previously served as pagarch of Heracleopolis (the pagarch was the most senior official of a region, known as a pagarchy, or nome). It is very doubtful that he himself was involved in this situation, rather that his name is invoked as the senior local official and representative of the government. Both parties benefit from this declaration: the state can’t be accused of unfair behaviour, nor can it exact more money from the villagers for this particular tax. This is not to say that every Christian tax payer had the same experience of Muslim officials, but a series of checks and measures were clearly in place to help ensure that the system ran as smoothly as it possibly could.
Technical Details Provenance: Hermopolis (el-Ashmunein), Egypt Date: 17 April 731 CE Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect) Collection: British Library, Or. 6201/A2 Designation: SB Kopt. V 2221 (siglum according to the Checklist of Editions); see also Trismegistos TM 322181. Bibliography: Gesa Schenke (2014), “Rashid ibn Chaled and the Return of Overpayments,” Chronique d’Égypte 89, pp. 202–209
At the age of 21 years and 29 days, the sistrum-player Kheredankh died. A fragment of her funerary stela survives and is today housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London. Originally, this stela would have been a remarkable artefact of very fine craftsmanship, with a representation of the deceased in the presence of Osiris (and perhaps other gods and goddesses of the netherworld) in its top part, and lines of exquisitely carved hieroglyphs underneath. Of all this, little survives today, namely, only the bottom left corner of the inscription, which had been badly damaged from being reused as a door socket (as suggested by the concave depression in its corner), before the father of Egyptian archaeologist Flinders Petrie probably saw and purchased it in Egypt. Yet, even in its battered condition, this fragment still reveals the stunning quality of its original carving.
More than providing indications of the quality of its craftsmanship, the little amount of text that survives belies the significance of its content. Concerning Kheredankh herself, we know that she was a sistrum-player during the late Ptolemaic Period, a title indicating a priestess whose distinctive role was to play the sistrum, an instrument producing a rattling sound that was used during various temple rituals. The few lines of surviving text on the Petrie fragment of Kheredankh’s funerary stela provide her date of birth and time of burial, when she died in relatively early adulthood. In a touching fashion typical of such mortuary monuments from ancient Egypt, the inscription is written in the first person, as if Kheredankh herself were addressing the reader through her stela:
‘My father (…) placed <me> in the west (i.e. the necropolis). He performed for [me] all funerary ceremonies (…) I was buried in his family tomb, by the side of his male and female ancestors’.
Beyond these details, we know that Kheredankh belonged to what was probably the most prominent family—right after that of the royals—in Ptolemaic Egypt: the family of the High Priest of Ptah in Memphis, Egypt’s oldest capital and still at the time the holiest city in the whole country. The office of High Priest of Ptah can be traced back to the Old Kingdom, in the third millennium BCE, and Kheredankh’s father, the High Priest Pasherenptah III (who lived from 90–41 BCE), was to be one of the last men to hold this position, which was eventually discontinued by the Romans shortly after their conquest of Egypt in the year 30 BCE.
Other monuments provide us with more information about the vicissitudes of Kheredankh’s family—reminding us that objects and the stories they tell do not exist in isolation. From the funerary stela of her mother Taimhotep (or perhaps her stepmother: the lineage is not completely clear) now in the British Museum (EA 147), we know that her father Pasherenptah III was struggling to beget a male child, who would become the heir of the High Priesthood of Ptah. After giving birth to three daughters, Taimhotep and Pasherenptah III eventually turned to the gods, begging for the intercession of Imhotep, the son of the god Ptah (and, originally, an actual historical figure, a high courtier who had lived in the third millennium BCE, and the architect of the Step Pyramid of Djoser). Through a vision in a dream, Imhotep promised the High Priest a male child in exchange for works to be carried out in his sanctuary. Eventually, the god kept his word, and the couple finally celebrated the birth of their son, whom they named Imhotep-Padibastet.
While all this high-born family drama was ongoing, even more radical upheavals were about to reshape the world in which Kheredankh and her parents lived, soon changing Egypt forever. Indeed, one of the reasons to which her stela fragment owes its fame is that it is one of the relatively few Egyptian texts to contain a mention of Caesarion, the ill-fated son of Cleopatra VII and—supposedly—Julius Caesar. This mention occurs in the date given for the day of Kheredankh’s burial, which is said to have taken place in the ninth year of reign of ‘the Queen, the Lady of the Two Lands, Cleopatra, and her son […] Caesarion’, that is, in 43 BCE.
Only the previous year, on the Ides of March of 44 BCE, Julius Caesar had been assassinated in Rome, an event that had triggered a civil war, which quickly expanded from Italy across the Mediterranean. It would only be a matter of a few years before Rome’s new strong men, Mark Antony and Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) would turn against each other. Cleopatra’s private relationship and political alliance with Mark Antony, and Egypt’s consequent alignment against Octavian and his armies in the Roman West, would turn out to be fatal for her and Egypt. Following Octavian’s victory over Mark Antony, events would quickly precipitate, with Cleopatra’s famous suicide in the year 30 BCE, Octavian’s victorious entry into Alexandria, and the murder of the young Caesarion, who had by then been proclaimed king Ptolemy XV Caesarion, the last sovereign of an independent Egypt.
With the Roman conquest, many drastic changes would shake Egypt, at all levels of society. As mentioned above, the office of Pasherenptah III itself, that is, the High Priesthood of Ptah in Memphis, with its tradition dating back over more than two thousand years, would not survive the death of Caesarion by many years.
Technical Details Provenance: Saqqarah, Egypt Date: 14 February 43 BCE (reign of Cleopatra and her son Caesarion) Language: Egyptian of Tradition / Middle Egyptian (hieroglyps) Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London (UC14357) Designation: Trismegistos TM113111 Bibliography: Jan Quaegebeur (1971), “Contribution à la prosopographie des prêtres Memphites à l’époque Ptolémaïque,” Ancient Society 3 (1972), pp. 77–109 (no. 2.5, pp. 99–100); Eva A.E. Reymond (1981), From the Records of a Priestly Family from Memphis(Wiesbaden), no. 23; Harry M. Stewart (1983), Egyptian Stelae Reliefs and Paintings from the Petrie Collection: Part Three: The Late Period(Warminster), no. 20, pl. 13.
What are we doing when we translate ancient texts and who are we doing it for? These questions have been on my mind for a while, and they lie behind a lot of my pieces for Papyrus Stories. Thinking about translation is not anything new. Texts have been translated into other languages since antiquity, and translation of literature today is an important part of the publishing world. Two passages from very different sources have recently caught my attention that discuss this very point.
Evagrius of Antioch, Prologue to Life of Antony In the fourth century, the Greek version of the Life of Antony was translated into Latin. The first translation, by an anonymous writer, was very faithful to the Greek, a later translation was produced by Evagrius of Antioch, who wrote the following in his prologue.
“A literal translation made from one language to another conceals the meaning, as rampant grasses suffocate the crops. As long as the text keeps to the cases and turns of phrases, it is forced to move in an indirect way by way of lengthy circumlocutions, and it finds it hard to give a clear account of something which could be expressed succinctly. I have tried to avoid this in translating, as you requested, the blessed Antony, in such a way that nothing should be lacking from the sense although something may be missing from the words. Some people try to capture the syllables and letters, but you must seek the meaning.”
For him, meaning was more important than a pedantic rendering of just words from one language to the next, so that his target audience (western and Latin-speaking) understood what was happening and didn’t struggle over cumbersome Latin constructions.
N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto Skipping forward 1,600 years, the novel N.P. by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto (1990; English translation by Ann Sherif, 1994) is – on the surface at least – about translating, the struggle to translate a novel from English to Japanese. In one scene, the narrator Kazami Kano (girlfriend of the last person to try to translate the novel) discusses the translation process with her mother, also a translator, who’s the first speaker in the following extract.
“I don’t think you’re really cut out for translation, you know that?”
“Why? Because I’m not accurate enough?”
“How can I describe it? You’re weak, not really weak, but too kind. You think that you have to be faithful to the structure of the original sentences.”
That had been bothering me about my own translations lately, and I thought of quitting.
“That sort of thing is inevitable no matter how hard you try to separate yourself from the text. You’re so sensitive, Kazami, that it’s going to wear you out.”
“So there’s no way around it?”
“That’s my opinion. Shoji wasn’t cut out for that kind of work, either.”
“You have a good memory,” I said. Mother nodded—of course she would remember him.
“Once you get too involved with a text, it’s difficult to let go of it or create it in another language. That’s what I think. Of course, if you don’t like the book to begin with, then you have to suffer through it,” she said with a smile. “I know how Shoji felt, though. I’ve been translating for more than ten years, and sometimes I get very weary. Translating exhausts you in a special way.”
Being too close to the text is difficult, as is wanting to be faithful to the original. You’ll lose yourself in it. And so, what does this mean when we translate ancient texts today? It’s one thing to edit a text for the first time and discuss all the philological difficulties, publishing the edition in a journal or book that will probably have a limited audience. It’s another thing entirely to write translations that mean something to people reading them as texts, who want to know what the writers mean, what they feel.
It may be a small thing, but one phrase in Coptic always sticks with me. Ari-tagapé or ari-pna literally translate into English as ‘do the love’ (Greek ἀγάπη– brotherly love, charity) and ‘do the mercy’. In Coptic, the expression is common in letters, often written before requests, to soften the force of imperatives. Really, this is the equivalent of English ‘please’ (‘please come and visit …’, ‘please send me …’), and that’s how I always chose to translate it. We don’t translate Spanish por favor as ‘by favour’, so why apply such strict literalism to ancient texts? Would ‘do the love’ mean anything to anybody? Please.
Ultimately, do we want to be slavishly faithful to the original text and miss the cultural translation? If we do, who are we writing for – and, more importantly, who are we excluding by obscuring sense with pedantry?
At birth, there was only a 66 per cent chance of celebrating your first birthday: one-third of all new-borns in the ancient world died before reaching that milestone. Once a child reached the age of five, their life-expectancy rose considerably, but the loss of at least one child was something that every parent experienced. While some texts mention the death of children only in passing (for example,this letterfrom 4th century Kellis), this is not to say that the death of a child did not leave an indelible mark.
In a Coptic letter from Hermopolis, a father – unfortunately his name is not included, only the name of the man who delivers his letter – writes to a community of nuns to ask for their prayers.
“I greet your pious sisterhood and your entire blessed community. May the peace of God be with you. Here is Apakyre; I sent him south to you to bring us (back) your greeting, as without you the affliction upon us is not small, concerning the wretched little girl. May God and your prayers comfort me about her, because I could not alleviate her mother’s grief.” [SB Kopt. IV 1692]
Their young daughter had died and the father, suffering himself, is unable alone to comfort his wife, whose pain is enormous. In their moment of need, they reach out for consolation to the sisters.
Such grief is echoed in a funerary stela written in early January of an unknown year for a girl called Drosis. While her age is not recorded, she was on the cusp of adulthood (for women, the age of sexual maturity, so between 12 and 14), before she was cruelly taken away.
“If a young plant that is protected by reeds comes to the time of bearing fruit, and if it coincides with the flooding season, such that the waters rise […and] drown it. Suddenly, grief will fall upon its owner and he will throw down his reeds, sorrowfully, because the plant has gone in its youth, before it could bear fruit. This is the case with this little girl. When she came to the age of bearing fruit, suddenly she was carried away. She was taken while in her youth, having left around her a [burning?] fire, to be extinguished by her mother and brother, with whom she lived. She went to He to Whom every breath goes, God Almighty. We beg and implore Him, now, for Ηis mercy to reach her, who has been seized prematurely – the blessed Drosis – with great mercy, and to place her in His holy Paradise, so she may find living rest forever. Written 12th Tobe, indication year 1.”
The poetic nature of this stela, with its metaphor comparing Drosis to a plant on the verge of bearing fruit, is exceptional – such inscriptions rarely record such great strength of feeling. The grief of her family, her mother and brother, is a burning fire. She was taken prematurely, but also seemingly unexpectedly, a point that may be reflected in the material aspects of the stela itself. As the image below shows, the stela is damaged in its upper left section, but the inscription itself is complete, indicating that the damage occurred before the text was incised. And even though a central area had been carved out for the epitaph, the writing actually covers the entire available surface. Did Drosis’ unexpected death force her family to buy any available stela from the local stonemason? Or, was a broken slab all that her mother and brother could afford?
Mortality Rates in Roman Egypt
Table from Roger Bagnall and Bruce Frier (2006), TheDemography of Roman Egypt (Cambridge). The second column shows the chance of survival before the next age, so:
at birth, 33.4% chance of dying before the first birthday;
at age 5, there was a 6.6% chance of dying before the age of 10.
The right-hand column shows how many years of life you’d have left: at birth, life expectancy was only 22.5, while if you survive until 5, you may live to be 43!
Technical Details (Papyrus): Provenance: Hermopolis (el-Ashmunein); Egypt. Date: 7th century CE(?). Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect). Collection: Benaki Museum, Athens (inv. K2). Designation: SB Kopt. IV 1692 (according to the Checklist of Editions). Bibliography: Gesa Schenke (1999), “Die Trauer um ein kleines Mädchen: Eine Bitte um Trost”, in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik127, pp. 117–122 and pl. 1.
Technical Details (Stela): Provenance: Unknown. Date: Unknown. Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect). Collection: Cairo, possibly the Coptic Museum (inv. JdE 59285). Designation: SB Kopt. I 784 (according to the Checklist of Editions). Bibliography: Monika Cramer (1941), Die Toteknlage bei den Kopten. Mit Hinweisen auf die Totenklage im Orient überhaupt(Wien–Leipzig), pp. 20–22 + pl. 6; Reginald Engelbach (1932), “A Coptic Memorial Tablet to a Young Girl,” in Studies Presented to F. Ll. Griffith, (London), pp. 149–151.
“I greet my Father Athanasios. I spoke to you about the medical book. I often wanted to come south, but looking after here has not allowed me to come south. I wanted to come south, (but) the roads prevented me. Now, please send it to me, either (by) Pmoute or give it to Aaron and he will send it to me via his brother. If I can examine it (for) two days, I will return it.”
So wrote a man, also called Athanasios, to a monastic elder. The ostracon, O.Crum 253, today in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, probably dates to the 7thcentury CE and likely comes from western Thebes (maybe the village Djeme/Medinet Habu). While the letter is only brief, there is quite a lot to unpack. Before the most obvious point – the request for the medical book – there is the passing reference to the road preventing Athanasios himself from travelling. Does this mean that he’s simply not up to the journey, or that he doesn’t have travel permits to travel out of his village, or is this an allusion to potential danger on the roads? Instead, Athanasios suggests a couple of men who can collect and deliver the book, highlighting the importance of social networks in day-to-day life, for support in various ways.
As for the main issue, the need for a medical book, The writer, Athanasios, doesn’t say who is sick or what the symptoms are, so the book in question must be something like the pocket-sized medical codex today in Copenhagen. This miniature book, only ca. 9 x 8 cm, contains remedies and instructions for a range of symptoms and conditions. For example, on p. 112 (below right), the text reads:
“For those people who throw up their food. (Mix) seeds of this plant and water and wine and honey. Let him drink and he will be healed.”
Water, wine, and honey are common ingredients in such treatments, especially honey! But, seeds from what plant? Sometimes, these medical books require some further knowledge from their users.
In addition to this kind of medical book, individual treatments could also be written and sent. An ostracon, P.Mon.Epiph. 574, found at the monastery of Epiphanius in western Thebes (built in and around Theban Tomb 130 on Sheikh Abd el-Qurna), contains a treatment for vomiting blood:
“For somebody with an internal illness who is vomiting blood:
heat up a little radish oil;
add to it a little burnt sulphur;
break a hen’s egg into the oil;
anoint the one who is sick in his bowels three times a day and he will be relieved.”
As the treatment mentions bowels in the last section, the problem seems to be intestinal rather than respiratory problems (vomiting rather than coughing up blood – the Coptic verb itself is more vague). Where the sick person is to be anointed is not stated, although perhaps over his abdominal region, as the point of contact closest to the affected region.
In both of the ostraca, monks are closely connected with the healing process: Father Athanasios, a monastic elder, is asked to send the book, while the treatment for vomiting blood was found at a small hermitage. While monastic figures are most often characterised as holy people and miracle-workers, studied primarily for their spiritual endeavours, they also fulfilled many important social functions. In his book, From Monastery to Hospital: Christian Monasticism and the Transformation of Health Care in Late Antiquity, Andrew Crislip illuminates the innovative approaches to health care that took place within the earliest monasteries. Monks and monasteries were not isolated, religious institutions but were a fundamental and integrated aspect of secular life in Egypt as well.
Hopefully, the medical book that Athanasios requested provided the treatments he needed to help those in his care.
Technical Details (Text 1): Provenance: Western Thebes(?), southern Egypt. Date: 7th century(?) CE. Language: Coptic, Sahidic dialect. Collection: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; inv. Bodl.Copt.Inscr. 104. Designation: O.Crum 253 (according to the Checklist of Editions).
Technical Details (Text 2): Provenance: Middle Egypt, perhaps the monastery of Apa Jeremias at Saqqarah. Date: 6th century CE. Language: Coptic, Sahidic dialect. Collection: Papyrus Carlsberg Collection, University of Copenhagen (P.Carlsberg 500). Designation: P.Carlsberg 500. Bibliography: Wolja Erichsen (1963), “Aus einem koptischen Arzneibuch,” Acta Orientalia27: 23–45; Tonio Sebastian Richter (2014), “Neue koptische medizinische Rezepte,” Zeitschrift für Ägyptologie und Altertumskunde141/2: 154–194.
Technical Details (Text 3): Provenance: Theban Tomb 130 (“Monastery of Epiphanius”), western Thebes, Egypt. Date: 7th century CE. Language: Coptic, Sahidic dialect. Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; inv. 12.180.79. Designation: P.Mon.Epiph. 574 (according to the Checklist of Editions).
On 26thApril of the 24thyear 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).
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.
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.
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.
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: 26th April, 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.
Technical Details (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.
Technical Detail (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.
Technical Details (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.
*This blog post was originally posted on the website of the European Research Council project, “Embedding Conquest”, and was reposted on the Leiden Islam Blog. With many thanks to the author and the original hosts for allowing the story to be reposted here.
Have you ever wondered what the Arab conquests of Egypt meant for the average Egyptian villager? The following story takes place a few years after 700, in the countryside of Middle Egypt. It’s based on a Coptic document that belonged to the management of the country by the Arab-Muslim government.
Shenoute was making his way through the village, hammer and nail in one hand, and he wretched letter in the other. As he headed for the church, a woman passed him by and looked at him questioningly. He’d been getting those looks from the villagers all day. They knew that this morning he was in the office of Basileios, the district administrator. A letter from the governor had arrived, and Shenoute and the other headmen of the villages in the district, had been summoned there to hear it. “They will know soon enough”, Shenoute thought, “and they are not going to like it”. The atmosphere around the village had been tense, since letters from the governor had been coming every month or so lately, and they never brought good news.
That morning, when he had arrived at the office of Basileios, the district administrator himself had not been in the room yet. As he greeted the office scribes, Shenoute immediately recognized the letter from the governor: a long strip of high quality papyrus, written in Arabic, the language of the amirs and amils who’d been running the country since the time of Shenoute’s grandparents. A scribe had just finished translating the letter to Greek and Coptic, for the benefit of Basileios and the village headmen, who, like Shenoute, didn’t know Arabic.
In a corner of the room, Shenoute had spotted Iohannes, headman of a neighboring village. His usual bored expression had made place for a preoccupied frown. Shenoute wanted to go over to greet him, but at that point Basileios had come in, followed by a man Shenoute had never seen before. He must be the messenger who had brought the letter, Shenoute thought.
Everyone fell silent as the scribe started to read the letter aloud. As Shenoute had expected, the governor was not happy, and he wrote, yet again, about the so-called “strangers” in Basileios’ district. They were immigrants from other districts, who had moved away and were not paying their taxes. The letter ordered Basileios to gather them and prepare them to be sent to the governor. The messenger who carried the letter, was to wait there until Basileios handed him the strangers, so that he could take them to the governor in the capital up North, where they would be punished.
The scribe reached the passage with the usual abuse and threats for Basileios if he wouldn’t do as told again: “You’re neglectful, you don’t value your life, I will crush your soul,” and so on. Shenoute glanced at Basileios, but his stony expression did not betray any emotion. Shenoute understood his own task from the letter: he, like the other village head men, would have to supply Basileios with a list of names of these so-called strangers, and the names of their wives and children, and the places where they had come from.
After the reading of the letter, a scribe handed him an abridged Coptic translation of it, to be pinned up on the church door and read aloud to the people in his village, so that they would know that those so-called strangers among them were to be sent away, by personal order of the highest authority in the country. And then, Shenoute reminded himself, he would be among the men responsible for rounding those poor people up and bringing them to Basileios’ office.
Lost in thoughts about the events of that morning and the contents of the letter, Shenoute didn’t notice that he’d almost reached the church. A small crowd was already waiting for him, and he tried to look confident and authoritative as he made his way to the church door. They watched as he nailed the letter to the door. He turned around and opened his mouth to speak.
Scholars tend to treat the Arab-Muslim government of Egypt, centered in the capital Fustat, and the villages in the countryside which it governed as two separate worlds. But, those worlds were integrated, and documents played an important part in that integration. The letter on which the story is based brings the words of the governor in the middle of the Egyptian village. In my next blog, read more about this specific document, its contents and how it testifies to the growing presence of the Arab-Muslim government in the Egyptian villages.
In the ancient world, education – learning to read and write – wasn’t a right and was accessible by only a small number of people. Only 5–10% of the population was literate. But what does this mean, what constitutes being literate? Does being able to write basic sentences fit the bill, or do you need to be able to write complicated compositions? By whose standards are we to judge literacy? Daily writing from the ancient world shows a wide range of abilities, showing that it is difficult (and probably not productive) to generalise about it.
When it comes to studying how people learned to write, we have a lot of education material – texts produced by both students and teachers from throughout Egyptian history, in the ancient languages of Egypt through to Coptic and the languages of its rulers, in particular Greek. Problems with teachers, funding, and other issues were recorded in letters, especially from students learning Greek in the cities (for the 2nd century CE, see this story). Outside of the major towns and cities, in the predominantly Egyptian-speaking villages of the Nile Valley in late antiquity, how did you learn to read and write? Who were the educators? Where did you go?
Two ostraca (pottery sherds) provide a very rare glimpse into these questions. Writing in Coptic, two priests – Sansno and Patermoute – declare that their colleague Isaac, another priest, hired another man, Pheu, to teach his son how to write and read. Once Pheu had fulfilled his contract, he will be paid one tremis, a small gold coin (one-third of the standard gold coin of the period). There is no mention of advance payment, everything was based on Isaac’s son demonstrating that he could write by his hand and read. Notice that the order is to write and read, not read and write, as might be expected today. People in the ancient world rarely learned to read just for the sake of it.
I, the priest and monk Sansno son of Daniel declare that I bear witness that the priest Isaac promised Pheu one tremis, saying ‘If you teach my son to write and read, I will give it to you’. And he taught (him) to read before he received it. I, Sansno, consent to this matter.
I, [the priest] Patermoute, know and declare by God that the priest Isaac promised Pheu one tremis, saying ‘If you teach my son to write and read, I will give it to you.’ Then, I declare that he taught (him) to read, before he received it, and he wrote by his hand.1 I, Patermoute consent to this matter. He spoke it, and I, Aaron son of Isaac, wrote the ostracon and bear witness.
The two priests confirm Pheu’s successful completion of the task and his subsequent payment. No other details are recorded – not even the boy’s name! No timeframe is noted, and so how long such a process would have taken is unknown. Neither priest mentions where they live, and so we also don’t know in which village this takes place, let alone the specific space. It has tentatively been suggested that the texts were written in western Thebes, but both the handwriting and the material are found elsewhere, so this is far from certain (there is also often a tendency to ascribe unprovenanced ostraca to Thebes, simply because so many ostraca have been found in that region).
It is striking that three of the four men mentioned are priests, except for Pheu who is hired to teach Isaac’s son. In the village Djeme (Medinet Habu) in western Thebes, many of the people who wrote or witnessed legal documents were priests. The signatures of the father-son priests, Chmentsney and Shenoute, are below. In this case, did Chmentsney teach Shenoute how to write? And, if so, did he train him completely? Their documents show lots of differences, in handwriting and formulae, so it’s hard to say. Maybe he taught Shenoute the basics, but in this case professional legal training was taught somewhere else, so that new scribes were kept up to date with all the latest practices.
As for the son of Isaac in our two ostraca, it is unlikely he ever advanced to the level of a professional scribe, as so few people ever reached that stage. But, Pheu at least taught him enough to satisfy the demands of his father.
*For Coptic literary evidence about the school experience, see this story.
Technical Details Provenance: Unknown; perhaps western Thebes. Date: 7th/8th century. Language: Coptic, Sahidic dialect. Collection: Paris,Cabinet des Médailles, #1894 and 1895 Designation: The text does not have a papyrological siglum; Trismegistos TM 85154. Bibliography: Anne Boud’hors (2016) “Apprendre à lire et à écrire: Deux documents coptes revisités,” in Proceedings of the 27th International Congress of Papyrology, Warsaw, 29 July–3 August 2013, edited by T. Derda, A. Łatjar, and J. Urbanik, pp. 1027–1039. Warsaw: Raphael Taubenschlag Foundation; Spiegelberg (1903) “Review of W. E. Crum, Coptic Ostraca from the collections of the Egypt Exploration Fund, the Cairo Museum and others,” Orientalistische Litteraturzeitung6, pp 59–69 (pages 67–68 for these texts).
On the 29 August 766 CE, a woman named Tachel daughter of Sophia from Luxor (ancient Apê) donated her son Athanasius to a local monastery, the monastery of Apa Phoibammon at Deir el-Bahri.
“In this current 5th indiction year, an infant boy was born to me, the woman and free person Tachel, in his seventh month. I promised him as a servant to the holy monastery of Apa Phoibammon of the mount of Djeme, that if God saves him from death, I will give him to the holy place.”
In an echo of the Old Testament I Samuel 1:10–11, and the dedication of the prophet Samuel to the temple by his mother Hannah, Tachel swears to dedicate her child to the monastery should he survive infancy.* The text can be interpreted as above, that the child was born prematurely in his seventh month, or that Tachel promised to dedicate him when he was seven months old (the Coptic syntax works either way). In the Greek and Roman world, it was believed that premature children born at seven months were more likely to survive than those born at eight months, as recorded in the writings of the ancient medical writers Hippocrates (5th/4th century BCE) and Soranus (1st/2nd century CE).
On the Eight Month Foetus10: “The eight months’ children never survive.”
On Regimen1.25: “And likewise they are born viable both those fully formed more quickly in seven months and those fully formed more slowly in nine months.”
On Fleshes19: “The child born at seven months comes into being according to logic and lives … but one born at eight months never lives.”
Gynaecology2.11: “[Birth] is best, then, in the ninth month and later if it should happen; but, in the seventh month as well.”
These months also occur in the documentary record. For example, in a letter from 64 CE, P.Fouad I 75 (from the Fayum), a woman Thaubas writers to her father informing him that his other daughter, Herennia, has died soon after childbirth, having given birth to a stillborn child a month prematurely, at eight months. In our later Theban document, it may therefore be significant that Tachel mentions the age of her child: at seven months, it was possible that he would survive, but it would be a dangerous time.
Tachel’s promise was heard and Athanasios not only survived, but thrived. In the face of his health and vigour, Tachel decided to break her promise to God and the monastery and keep the child. But the boy was punished for her decision, succumbing to a severe illness.
“Afterwards, God caused the little boy, whom I named in the holy baptism Athanasios, to grow and get bigger, and my lost reason threw me into great sin. Concerning this little boy, I plotted that I would not give him to the holy place. After God saw the lawless act that I had committed, he cast the little boy into a great illness, in which he remained for a long time, such that I and everybody who saw him reckoned that he had died. When I considered the reckless act that I had committed, I turned back and begged the saint in his monastery: ‘If you ask God to grant this infant boy healing, I will place him in the monastery forever, in accordance with my initial agreement.’ Then, the mercy of the merciful God had pity on the little boy and he granted him healing. I lifted him in my arms and took him to the holy monastery, because he had fallen into a demoniacal-illness. Everybody saw him and was amazed by him.”
After receiving healing, Tachel upheld her promise and donated the boy, having the legal document P.KRU 86 drawn up as a security for the monastery and confirming it as the new owner of the child. The legal clauses are exactly the same as those occurring in other contracts, e.g., sales of property.
“As the surety, then, the holy place asked me for this donation deed in respect of my beloved son Athanasios, which I concede to, as I live, my mind being my own, my reason firm, and there being no bodily illness upon me, but through my desire and my own decision, without any cunning, fear, violence, deceit, and ruse I declare that I assign my son Athanasios to the abovementioned monastery, from now to forever and for all time following me, forever. Furthermore, the person who will dare sue this infant boy, thusly, he will be subject to the judgement of my offering and the judgement seat of God, and I will receive judgement with him. As a surety, then, for the holy place, I have drawn up this donation deed. It is secure and valid everywhere in which it may be produced.”
The Corpus of Child Donation Documents This document is one of a group of 25 texts that record donations of boys to the monastery of Apa Phoibammon, dating primarily from 750–781 CE (P.KRU 78–103). Our document above is one of a small number in which women alone donate their child. Tachel doesn’t mention the child’s father, nor does she mention her own, providing only her own mother’s name, and she acts together with her sister: “I, Tachel the daughter of Sophia from Apê of the Hermonthite nome, with my sister Elisabeth acting with me in this.” Can we read anything into this? Was Tachel a single mother with no male family in her support network, for whom donating a child – especially a sick child – to the monastery was the best decision? However, in other documents, fathers donate their son without any mention of a mother (did the mother die in childbirth or soon afterwards?), while in the majority of documents both parents donate their child together. In most cases, the child was ill – sometimes near death – and the parents pray for their recovery. Child mortality rates were very high in the ancient world, with a 30% chance that a child would die before its first birthday. Parents praying for the well-being of their child is no surprise, nor is their willingness to do anything for their protection, including giving them away to a monastery. But was this the only motive? The documents say no more, but the mid-8thcentury was a time of increasing difficulty for villagers throughout the Nile, and our documents are the latest evidence of daily-life in western Thebes with the settlements in this area seemingly abandoned by the end of the eighth century. Can we read economic motives in the donations?
And what of the children themselves? What were they to do in the monastery? While P.KRU 86 provides no information in this respect, other documents in the corpus record more information. It is clear that the boys were not to become monks. Their tasks in the monastery were entirely of a servile nature: manual labour dedicated to the upkeep of the monastery. As P.KRU 80 (776 CE) states:
“… and he will serve the holy monastery for the sweeping, the sprinkling, the water for the tanks, the care of the lamp of the altar, and every duty of the holy place and everything that the steward will order him (to do). If it happens that the steward wants to release him and he works, the product of his hands will belong to the steward annually, forever, and he spends it on oil for the lamp of the altar.”
Even if the child eventually leaves the monastery, all the profits of his work will belong to the monastery. According to another donation, P.KRU 95 (ca. 750 CE), any children that the boys would have of their own in the future would also belong to the monastery. Their status was hereditary.
Were these children then slaves? A couple of documents state this explicitly: “he will serve the monastery for all his remaining days, like an old slave” (P.KRU90; ca. 750–760 CE); he will be “like a slave bought for money” (P.KRU 82; 771 CE). The monastery will care for them, provide food, shelter, and clothing, and in return the monastery receives a source of free labour, allowing the monks to turn their attention to other concerns.
When Tachel donated her child Athanasios, what was she thinking about and feeling? Was she sad at losing her child? Was she relieved at no longer having the burden of a sick child with limited family support? Did she know what future lay in store for Athanasios? Or, was she mainly happy knowing that he would have a safe home in a turbulent time?
*A direct reference to I Samuel I:10–11 occurs in three of the documents (P.KRU 89, 96, 100), showing that the parallel was well-known (if not obvious) to some of those involved in producing these contracts.
Technical Details Provenance: Written Luxor (ancient Apé), found Deir el-Bahri (Monastery of Apa Phoibammon) Date: 29 August 766 CE Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect) Collection: British Library, London (Papyrus LXXXV) Designation: P.KRU86; P.Lond.Copt. I 384; Greek beginning = SB I 5597 (according to the Checklist of Editions) Bibliography: W. C. Till (1964), Die koptischen Rechtsurkunden aus Theben (Vienna) pp. 162–164; T. G. Wilfong (2002), Women of Jeme: Lives in a Coptic Town in Late Antique Egypt (Ann Arbor), pp. 100–102.
Other bibliography on the Coptic child donation texts: Papaconstantinou, A. (2002) “Notes sur les actes de donation d’enfant au monastère thébain de Saint-Phoibammon,” Journal of Juristic Papyrology 32: 83–105. Available online here (Open Access). Papaconstantinou, A. (2002) “ΘΕΙΑΟΙΚΟΝΟΜΙΑ: Les actes thébains de donation d’enfants ou la gestion monastique de la pénurie,” Travaux et mémoires 14: 511–526. Richter, T. S. (2005) “What’s in a Story? Cultural Narratology and Coptic Child Donation Documents,” Journal of Juristic Papyrology 35: 237–264. Available online here (Open Access). Schenke, G. (2016) “The Healing Shrines of St. Phoibammon: Evidence of Cult Activity in Coptic Legal Documents,” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum / Journal of Ancient Christianity 20: 496–523.