Potential Paternity Problem

Jennifer Cromwell

Where in the ancient world could you turn when you had a serious family scandal to talk about? Well, in western Thebes in the early 7th century, one option was to write to local church figures. A papyrus preserves a letter from a man, seeking advice about another man’s paternity problem. The beginning of the letter is lost, but the juicy details survive:

“After they were united, they fought and bickered constantly. [Then] she left him, up until now. Yet, look, she gave birth this month and he came to me, saying ‘The little girl that she gave birth to is not mine! She conceived her, deceiving me, for it has been six months since I united with her.’ Here, then, I have sent him to you. Please, listen as he recounts his business. What you shall command, write it to us!”

P.Pisentius 17

A tempestuous relationship and questioned paternity – the things talk shows are made of. As the infant girl here seems to have survived, it is unlikely that she was born so premature. So, if the man’s claim is correct, that they were only together for six months, then it surely wasn’t his daughter.

Unfortunately, the letter’s address, with the name of the sender and the recipient, is lost, as are the names of the couple concerned (if they were mentioned by name, that is). But, this letter is believed to be one of many that were written to bishop Pisentius.

Pisentius was bishop of Coptos (Coptic Keft, modern Qift) in the early 7th century. He fled south to western Thebes during the Persian invasion and conquest of Egypt in the 620s (a short-lived conquest of a decade during the Byzantine-Sassanian War, before emperor Heraclius regained the country in 629). Local villagers – both men and women – sought his council on a range of affairs.

In this instance, we have only the man’s side of the story. If the bishop wrote down his response, as requested, that letter is lost (or maybe remains to be discovered!). And how the woman’s story may have differed will never be known.

Technical Details
Provenance: Western Thebes, Egypt.
Date: Early 7th century CE (after 620).
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: Louvre Museum / Musée du Louvre, Paris (inventory number unknown)
Designation: P.Pisentius 17 (for this sigla, see the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: A new edition of this text and others associated with bishop Pisentius is nearing completion by Prof. Jacques van der Vliet (Leiden University). Until this is published, T. G. Wilfong, Women of Jeme (2002, University of Michigan Press) discusses some of the letters written to Pisentius and his role in the Theban communities.

There is no published image of the papyrus (yet), so instead here is an aerial view of western Thebes, the setting of our story, by Steve Cameron.

A Harvester’s Plea

Gareth Wearne

What legal rights did a farm labourer have in ancient Israel? A rare glimpse is offered by an ostracon (inscribed pot-sherd), which was discovered in 1960 in the guardroom of a small Iron Age fortress, approximately 17 km south of Tel Aviv.

The ostracon contains a judicial petition from a harvester to the commander of the fortress. In it, the worker, who does not identify himself by name, asks the commander to intervene and ensure the return of his garment, which had apparently been confiscated for his alleged failure to meet a work quota. The petition reads:

“May my lord the governor hear the appeal of his servant: Your servant was harvesting in Hazar-asam. Your servant harvested and measured as always before stopping. And when your servant had measured the harvest and stored it as always, Hoshavyahu ben Shobay came and took your servant’s garment. When I had measured my harvest as always he took the garment of your servant! All my brothers will testify for me; those harvesting with me in the heat of the sun, they will confirm that it is so. I am innocent of guilt. Now, please return my garment. Again, I petition the commander to return the garment of your servant. Grant him mercy and return the garment of your servant and do not confound me!”

The custom of taking a garment as surety is attested in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Exodus 22:26–27; Deuteronomy 24:17; Amos 2:8), where there is a special concern for the plight of the poor and vulnerable (cf. Deuteronomy 24:12–15).

Although the phrasing of the petition reflects the usual politeness of someone writing to a social superior, the wording is repetitive and gives some sense of the worker’s anguish – notice the ad hoc manner in which the appeal switches between the first, second, and third persons. Even so, the ostracon seems to have been written by a trained scribe, since it is unlikely that a poor farm labourer in Iron Age Israel would have been able to read and write. Was it commissioned as a formal letter of appeal? Or is it a transcription (or summary) of a spoken plea?

Sadly the governor’s decision is not recorded, so we don’t know the outcome of the petition – after all, we only have the harvester’s word that he filled his work quota. Whatever the case, it is remarkable that even a poor labourer could have recourse to a formal appeal such as this.

Photo J. Schweig; Israel Exploration Journal 10/3: Plate 17

Technical Details
Provenance: Meṣad Ḥashavyahu (near Yavneh Yam), Israel
Date: 7th century BCE
Language: Hebrew
Collection: Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Designation: KAI 200
Bibliography: J. Naveh (1960) “A Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century B.C.,” in Israel Exploration Journal 10/3: 129–39; J. M. Lindenberger (2003) Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters. 2nd edition. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature [see pp. 107–110].




A Runaway Child Bride

Jennifer Cromwell

How early was too early to marry in the ancient world? If the answer is connected to being an adult, then what is an adult? And does that question differ for men and women? Is it simply a question of reaching sexual maturity (puberty), which was older in the ancient world than it is today, or are there different societal constraints on what it means to be grown up? While we’re asking questions, how much do modern, western views (with our longer life expectancies and lower child and childbirth mortality rates) impact our understanding of this issue?

A letter written on a limestone ostracon by “the humblest Mark”, a well-known figure and priest, to a couple, Papnoute and Elisabeth, concerns a “young girl” that is in their care, who has run away from her husband:

“You know that I wrote, advising you, again, saying “You are my brethren and I do not want to hear anything ugly against you!” Now, I have been informed that you are holding onto the young girl who is with you. … If you continue not to teach the man’s wife that she is to join him and obey him, just like every wife, and to do his bidding, then know that I will excommunicate you, until she stops being so disturbed.”

O.Lips.Copt. 24

The tone and content, advocating subservience of the wife to her husband – and stating that any other behaviour is “disturbed” –, is jarring to many modern readers. But to an early Christian audience, leaving your spouse without just cause was not permitted, and the only just cause was adultery. In a letter, bishop Abraham, who founded a monastery at Deir el-Bahri (on top of the mortuary temple of Hatschepsut), expounds against divorce (O.Crum 72): “I have been further informed that some have divorced their wives, without reasons of adultery.” Anybody culpable in divorce will be excommunicated, including:

  • the woman who abandons her husband and marries another;
  • the person who causes a married couple to separate;
  • the scribe who draws up a divorce document.

In order to support his stance, Abraham quotes Luke 16:18: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another is an adulterer, and he who marries a divorced woman is an adulterer.”

For the church, the ideal state was for a man and wife to remain together. In our first letter, the bride is called a young girl. Does Mark’s use of this designation mean that she (and she is never named) was considered young for marriage, even by the standards of the day – maybe only on the cusp of puberty? Perhaps Papnoute and Elisabeth were her parents, to whom she fled, away from her older husband.

No further letters from Mark to or from Papnoute and Elisabeth are known; we are left with only silence surrounding the ultimate fate of the girl.

oLipsCopt 24 + Abraham + DeB.jpg
Left: O.Lips.Copt. 24 (c) Ägyptisches Museum – Georg Steindorff; Centre: Apa Abraham. Icon of Apa Abraham in the Bode Museum Berlin. (c) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Right: monastery on top of Deir el-Bahri – see W. Godlewski. 1986. Le monastère de St. Phoibammon. Warsaw: PWN–Éditions scientifique de Pologne. The photographs of the site that Godlewski publishes, including this, were taken by Howard Carter in 1894/5 and are now in the archives of the Egypt Exploration Society (c) EES.

Technical Details (Text 1)
Provenance: Western Thebes, Egypt.
Date: Early 7th century CE.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: Egyptian Museum / Ägyptisches Museum, University of Leipzig, Leipzig (inv. 502).
Designation: O.Lips.Copt. 24 (previously O.Crum Ad. 13); see Checklist for publication information.
Bibliography: T. Sebastian Richter (2014) “Daily Life: Documentary Evidence,” in Coptic Civilization: Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra, 131–144. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. (see pages 135–136).

Technical Details (Text 2)
Provenance: Western Thebes, Egypt.
Date: Late 6th / early 7th century CE.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: British Museum, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (EA32886).
Designation: O.Crum 72; see Checklist for publication information.

An Angry Tax Man

Jennifer Cromwell

Following the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641 CE (or Islamic conquest, it’s frequently referred to as both or either), a new tax was added to the growing list of impositions placed on the country’s population: the poll tax, payable by all non-Muslim adult males. For over two centuries after the conquest, the majority of Egyptians were Christian, creating at least in theory a considerable body of men liable for paying this tax.

A large body of documentation survives concerning how taxes were managed, including registers, demands, and receipts. Letters from or to tax officers also reveal different aspects of the system, especially problems. Of the Coptic evidence from the eighth century, one letter in particular stands out. It was written from a Muslim official, Ibrāhīm ibn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān to a Christian man, Theodore, from the village Titkooh (closely linked with the monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit near Hermopolis).

Screen Shot 2018-05-24 at 23.03.29
P.Mich.Copt. 15 (c) University of Michigan, Papyrology Collection

“So that you know that I have appointed Serenos over you to [collect? the] tax. I have not appointed him over you so that he may pay anything for you. So then, pay the stipulated amount as your instalment. Collect and bring it to this person (i.e., Serenos). If you seek to break anything in it, I will send one who will extract it from your bones.”

P.Mich.Copt. 15

Chilling stuff. The threat is not subtle. The content is direct, without any framing that is typical of letters. How should we understand this short text? Is its tone reflective of increasing tensions between the minority Muslim rulers and the Christian majority? Or was religion not a factor and the harsh warning is issued from a frustrated tax official to a non-paying citizen? Threatening tax officials aren’t exactly unfamiliar nowadays, and neither is tax evasion, for which the evidence in the ancient world is ripe (and if the tax man can bring down Al Capone …).

Other letters from the same period show much more conciliatory language between Muslims and Christians. A roughly contemporary letter (it, like the previous one, is not dated) from Ṣāliḥ to Chael son of John concerns an instruction for the latter to collect and deliver money. However, the tone is much gentler and polite, and Ṣāliḥ calls Chael ‘my beloved brother’ (CPR II 237). Taking each letter in isolation seems to present very different pictures of relationships between Muslims and Christians. Yet, religion is just one part of the story and the true nature of relationships are more complex: do the parties know each other, what are their respective roles in the situations, where does power lie? Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder, but that’s only one way to look at things.

Technical Details
Provenance: Titkooh, Hermopolite nome. Egypt.
Date: 8th century CE.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: Papyrology collection, University of Michigan (inv. 6861).
Designation: P.Mich.Copt. 15 (sigla following the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: Alain Delattre (2015) ‘Le monastère de Baouît et l’administration arabe’, in Documents and the History of the Early Islamic World, edited by A. T. Schubert and P. M. Sijpesteijn, pp. 43–49 (Leiden: Brill).





“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.