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Papyrus Scraps Reveal Life in Ancient Egypt

  • Lonny Shavelson

Imagine if somebody in, say, the year 4008, finds your daily paperwork – letters, receipts, personal scribblings and tries to figure out what your life was like. That's just what's happened to some Egyptians born more than 2,000 years ago. Their daily paperwork yes, even ancient Egyptians had paperwork is being analyzed at Stanford University. Lonny Shavelson tells us how these scraps of paper bring back ancient lives.

Egyptian mummies were preserved in loops of white linen. But that's not all they were wrapped in. Like a delicate wine glass packed for shipping today, a mummy was often cushioned inside and out with crinkled up paper. Back then, it was crinkled up papyrus. And not new papyrus – but recycled – papyrus people had written on.

Tasha Dobbin, an Egyptology doctoral student at Yale, holds up one of those crinkled scraps and explains, "Well, here I have a papyrus, it's written in demotic, which is the final phase of the Egyptian language."

Dobbin is one of 18 international students at Stanford's Papyrological Institute this summer. The papyrus in her hands is 2,200 years old, from before the reign of Cleopatra. "It's actually really exciting. You sort of dream to get an opportunity like this!"

Artifacts took a circuitous route to California

These ragged, brown, insect-chewed scraps with faded ink scrawlings, were donated to Stanford around 1920 by an alumnus who found them in an antiquities store in London. Joseph Manning, a papyrologist at Stanford, says one of the documents with the donation said he purchased the text from what he called "a Chinaman."

From 1920 until just a few years ago, the papyri were forgotten…waiting to be rediscovered. "These things have been sitting in folders, on a shelf, for the last 60 years," Manning marvels. "Before the conservation process, it looks like a piece of paper with mud on it."

Manning had no idea what the papyri contained. So he played out a hunch, and brought a specialist in papyrus cleaning to Stanford. After they were cleaned, he says, they were spectacular. "The ink was as if it were written yesterday. Very bright, black against this beautiful papyrus color, light brown."

Spectacular in appearance, but Professor Manning still didn't know what they said. "The languages are difficult, very difficult handwriting sometimes," he explains. "You can't just sit down and read a text in an hour. You sometimes have to spend a year, maybe reading a word or two, putting it away for a while, coming back to it."

And that's where the students came in. Stanford happened to be hosting this year's Summer Institute in Papyrology. So Manning put the participants to work reading the papyri.

Barbara Richter, a Ph.D. candidate in Egyptology at the University of California, Berkeley, is working on an ancient marriage contract. "[It's] actually a record of the woman's dowry that she's bringing to her husband. But in the case of a divorce, she gets that entire dowry returned to her. Very similar to a pre-nup[tial agreement]," she adds with a laugh.

A surprise from an ancient fragment

The papyri were mostly mundane – farming receipts, land agreements. But one tiny scrap held a stunning revelation about the Greek general, Antiochus, who conquered nearly all of Egypt in 170 BC.

Papyrology professor Mark Depauw, visiting Stanford from the Netherlands, explains that historians said that when Antiochus took over Egypt, he didn't have the audacity to dethrone the Egyptian king or pharaoh, but kept the pharaoh in place. Or so it's been thought. Depauw holds in his hands a minute papyrus fragment – with text referring to Antiochus as The Pharaoh. "This is one of two documents which actually proves that he went so far and made himself Pharaoh," he says.

Why is this seemingly minor point of major significance? Because, says Depauw, the Greeks and Romans were competing for Egypt. And the Greek Antiochus, by declaring himself Pharaoh, so irritated the Romans that a Roman general confronted him and demanded he withdraw from Egypt. Antiochus said he'd think about it.

Depauw finishes the story, "and then the Roman envoy just drew a circle in the sand around him and said 'You get as much time as you want but then when you leave the circle I want your answer.'" That was the birth of the expression drawing a line in the sand, and of line-in-the sand diplomacy.

So now we know more about what led up to that historical moment. All thanks to a faded scrap of papyrus removed from an Egyptian mummy, taken to London by a man from China, and deciphered by a Dutch papyrologist in California for the summer.

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