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
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.