“My milk being good from both breasts”

Jennifer Cromwell

In a Coptic letter from the 7th century CE, a wet nurse Maria expresses her grief and condolences over the death of a young girl (P.Amh. II 188 desc.; edition by Alain Delattre et al., 2018).

“My heart grieved when I heard about my daughter, that she had died.”

Maria then goes on to wish a long life to another girl, Anastasia. Rather than reading the text literally, the girl who died is most likely the daughter of the recipients of the letter, not Maria. What seems to be the clinching detail in understanding the relationships in this letter is that Maria identifies herself as a wet nurse in the letter’s address:

“Give it to my sister Talau, from the wet nurse Maria.”

P.Amh. II 188 descr. verso: address with Maria’s name (c) Pierpont Morgan Library

The letter is short and its contents incredibly sad. But – and here is where some scholarly distance comes in to play – one of the most notable features is the identification of Maria as a wet nurse. There are almost no Coptic documents that involve a wet nurse (the Coptic word is moone) – the title occurs in a list on a papyrus in the Austrian National Library in Vienna (CPR XII 5; inv. K. 4494), but we know nothing about the individual mentioned there. Why are wet nurses almost never mentioned, then, in Coptic texts?

In Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt (ca 3rd century BCE to 4th century CE) there isn’t the same absence. Wet nurse contracts are known from this period in which a woman is hired to nurse an infant. The earliest contract that we know of comes from the site Tebtunis in the Fayum and dates to 7 May 231 BCE. The bulk of the document is written in Demotic (P.Cairo dem. 30604), with Greek lines noting its place and date of registration (P.Tebt. II 297). In this case, the woman Sponnesis daughter of Horus and Taues is contracted by the man Phanesis son of Nechtyris to nurse his son Petesouchos for three years: “I am for you the wet nurse, my milk being good from both breasts.” She promises to care for, nurture, and protect the boy. (For more about this text and other early wet nurse contracts, see Parca 2017, noted below.)

MMA (26-71405) Nursing Woman - composite
Woman breastfeeding, 5th Dynasty (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art (26.7.1405)

In earlier periods of Egyptian history, breastfeeding is not an uncommon topic in art. One of my favourite statues (shown above) dates to Egypt’s Old Kingdom and is today on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A woman kneels down with a child on her knee and she holds out her breast for the child to suckle, while another child takes matters into his own hand and pulls her other breast under her other arm in order to feed as well. Dating over a thousand years later, a sketch on a limestone ostracon from the village Deir el-Medina (on the west bank of the Nile opposite Karnak/Luxor) in the British Museum’s collection shows a woman sitting and breastfeeding (shown below).

DelM nursing woman [EA8506]
Ostracon, Deir el-Medina, New Kingdom (c) Trustees of the British Museum EA8506

And so why are wet nurses – or breastfeeding itself – so rare in Coptic documents? In Coptic literature concerning the holy family, passages state that Mary was breastfed until she was three years old, while she in turn breastfed the infant Jesus until he was the same age. At the same time, paintings of Mary suckling Jesus adorned churches across the Mediterranean world. There was no censor of the idea or the image.

This brings us to a wee problem in using written sources for the study of the ancient world. There is so much about which we may want to know that simply is never mentioned. Why would somebody need to write to somebody else about their breastfeeding plans? If they ever had to discuss the matter, they’d do so in person. For many periods and places, using a wet nurse may have been such a common event that it did not need to be written down in a formal contract. The Coptic letter from Maria reminds us, in case we were in any doubt, that wet nurses existed, even if we rarely read about them.

Technical Details (Papyrus)
Provenance: Unknown. 
Date: 7th century? CE 
Language: Coptic; Sahidic dialect. 
Collection: Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (purchased 1912 from the Amherst collection). 
DesignationP.Amh. II 188 descr. (note: ‘descr.’ indicates that no edition was published, just a description; for the papyrological sigla, see the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: Alain Delattre, Perrine Pilette and Naïm Vanthieghem (2018) “Papyrus coptes de la Pierpont Morgan Library II: Lettre de condoléances d’une nourrice,” Journal of Coptic Studies 20: 1–10 (available online here). 

Technical Details (Object #1)
Provenance: probably tomb of Nikauinpu, Giza, Egypt
Date: Dynasty 5, Old Kingdom (ca. 2420–2389 BCE). 
Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art: 26.7.1405 – on display in Gallery 103. 

Technical Details (Object #2)
Provenance: Deir el-Medina, Egypt 
Date: Dynasty 19 or 20, New Kingdom (1295–1069 BCE). 
Collection: British Museum, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan: EA8506

Some bibliography
Burt Kasparian (2007) “La condition des nourrices sous le Moyen Empire,” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie Orientale 107: 109–126 (available online here – open access). 
Maryline Parca (2017) “The Wet Nurses of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt,” Illinois Classical Studies 42: 203–226 (available online here – if you have JStor access).

Death in the Desert

Jennifer Cromwell

Photo of Dakhla Oasis courtesy of Dr Caleb Hamilton, who excavated at Kellis as part of the Monash team

Life in the ancient world, before the development of modern medicine, was hard. Child mortality rates were high, life-expectancy was much lower than it is today, and illnesses and injuries that are easily cured now were often fatal. Life out in the oases of the western desert must have been especially difficult.

For the past three decades, a team of researchers from Monash University led by Colin Hope have excavated the village Kellis, modern Ismant el-Kharab, in Dakhleh Oasis. This work resulted in the discovery of hundreds of Greek and Coptic documents, as well as a smaller number written in Syriac, found within buildings of the village and dating to the fourth century CE. They provide insights into different aspects of the lives of the inhabitants, mostly contained in letters that villagers wrote to family members working in the Nile Valley. The letters are full of details about daily affairs going on at home, keeping the absentees up-to-date with what they were missing. Among the business matters that are related, and general greetings, are topics of a less happy nature.

In one letter, the woman Tegoshe writes to her *brother Pshai of tragic events that prevented her from leaving the oasis:

“The children of Nonna fell ill and died. I, myself, developed pus and have not been able to come. But, you, my brother, do not forget me! Rather, just as you took care of me here, do not abandon me now! Greet me warmly to my lady, my sister Tapshai. Tell her that I was set to come to Egypt, myself and the little girl. Then death forced itself on me and carried her away. I am powerless! It is not only her – Nonna’s children have also died.”

P.Kellis VII 115

In an earlier letter (P.Kellis VII 92), Timotheos tells his *sister Kyra that “Our sister Nonna and her daughters are all well.” So what happened between the writing of these two letters? Did the girls succumb to a wider epidemic blighting the community? Or are their deaths reflective of child mortality rates in the ancient world? This textual evidence can be compared with the human remains from the Kellis 2 cemetery, where 61% of the 635 burials are for juveniles. The human remains have been the subject some studies, but continuing work and future publications will hopefully reveal more about health issues and causes of death.

Not only children died unexpectedly. In P.Kellis VII 73, Pegosh writes to Pshai:

“I greet you my loved [brother, for] how is it since the boy heard that his sister had died and left two daughters? When he heard, he said: ‘Write to him that he may send one of them to me,’ so that I can keep her for you. He said I will take care of her like a daughter.”

P.Kellis VII 73

The two girls have been left orphaned – their father is not mentioned, but the content of the letter suggests that they were already fatherless and new arrangements for their care need to be made. The girls’ uncle will take in one of them, while Pegosh goes on to say that he will take the other sister. Such fostering (or informal adoption) of orphaned children must have taken place all the time throughout Egypt, but few adoption contracts survive. In this case, if Pegosh hadn’t been so far from home, we probably wouldn’t have heard about this situation either. More often than not, events – even tragic ones such as these – were not recorded, but were simply taken care of within the community. It is only in exceptional situations, of distance or unusual circumstances, when such matters were written down.

*Kinship terms throughout the documents may not actually refer to biological relationships, but are used as terms of endearment.

**The translations above are those of the original editors (Iain Gardner, Anthony Alcock, and Wolf-Peter Funk), whose work on these difficult fourth century texts I cannot improve – I have made a few minor adjustments only.

pKellis VII 115 (r)
The papyrus image (P.Kellis VII 115) is taken from the publication

Technical Details
Provenance: Kellis (Ismant el-Kharab); Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt
Date: 4th century CE
Language: Coptic (Lycopolitan Dialect)
Collection: Storeroom in Dakhleh.
Designation: P.Kellis VII 73, 92, and VII 115 (sigla according to Checklist of Editions)

Some bibliography:
For Kellis’ human remains, see: S. M. Wheeler, L. Williams, T. L. Dupras, M. Tocheri, and J. E. Molto. 2011. “Children in Roman Egypt: Bioarchaeology of the Kellis 2 Cemetery, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt,” in (Re)Thinking the Little Ancestor: New Perspectives on the Archaeology of Infancy and Childhood, edited by M. Lally and A. Moore, pp. 110–121. Oxford: Archaeopress.
For child mortality and demographics generally, see: R. S. Bagnall and B. W. Frier. 1994. The Demography of Roman Egypt. Cambridge: CUP.

Photo of Dakhla Oasis courtesy of Dr Caleb Hamilton, who excavated at Kellis as part of the Monash team

An Abandoned Wife and Unpaid Alimony

Jennifer Cromwell

SB Kopt IV 1709 [ÖNB K950r]
SB Kopt. IV 1709 (c) Austrian National Library, Vienna (P.Vindob K. 950)

It’s a story that resonates throughout the ages: a man abandons his wife and their children for another woman. The story could be of a woman abandoning her husband and kids, but the story on this 7th century AD papyrus is of a man who leaves his wife. His sick wife. And their four children.

“… listen to my mistreatment by Paul, my husband […] I had three children with him before I became ill. God knows that after I became ill, I had another [child …] When he saw me, that God had brought his illness upon me, he abandoned me and left with another woman. He left [us …] and I was abandoned.”

SB Kopt. IV 1709

The unnamed wife was awarded an annual alimony (here, the Greek word analôna) from her ex-husband of barley, oil, wine, and items of clothing – the staples of life in Egypt – to support herself and her children. Paul, however, had failed to provide the full amount, giving his ex-wife only one-quarter of the stipulated quantity of barley. He was in breach of contract and so she wrote this petition in order to exact the full amount owed her: “I am not asking for anything except the alimony that he established with me, because I am ill […] so I can live on it.”

Marriage in Egyptian villages was quite an informal matter, with cohabitation and societal recognition of this as the important factors. In Coptic, marriage was loosely referred to as sitting with another individual. There are almost no marriage or divorce documents written in this phase of the language (there were some, and more in earlier periods and in Greek, but these will be left for other Papyrus Stories). Yet, women did have access to authority figures who could assist them in difficult times, as this document tells us. In this particular case, our abandoned woman could call for official assistance against her husband because the only cause for divorce in the Christian period was adultery, and Paul was guilty of that. Whether or not he remained guilty of not providing alimony is another matter.

The papyrus document preserving this matter is not the finished text that was sent to an official, but most likely an earlier draft, as indicated by several factors: the papyrus was used for multiple texts, including three lists and writing exercises. The petition itself also lacks an address and even the name of the woman in question is not stated—the only name is that of the negligent husband, Paul. Such a document would not be sent to an official. Instead, the scribe first produced this draft to ensure the details were correct before producing a more formal piece of writing.

Technical Details
Provenance: Egypt; unknown location
Date: 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic Dialect)
Collection: Austrian National Library, Vienna; P.Vindob. K. 950
Designation: SB Kopt. IV 1709 (see ‘Checklist of Editions‘)
Bibliography: H. Buschhausen, U. Horak, and H. Harrauer (1995) Der Lebenskreis der Kopten. Dokumente, Textilien, Funde, Ausgrabungen (Vienna: Hollinek) pp. 10–11 [#10]; Jane Rowlandson, ed. (1998) Women & Society in Greek & Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 216; Walter C. Till (1938) “Eine koptische Alimentenforderung,” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie Copte 4: 71–78.