It is not just a mummy…

In the winter of 1899-1900 a team of papyrologists and workers, led by the Oxford scholars Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, conducted an excavation at the ancient site of the village of Tebtunis. Incidentally, the excavation was carried out for the University of California and funded by Mrs. Phoebe Hearst.

The team excavated the necropolis (south and south-west of the site), where a large number of tombs of the Ptolemaic period, human and crocodile mummies were recovered.

I quote here part of the introduction to ‘The Tebtunis Papyri’, vol. 2, which include the papyri (with traslation and comment) found during this excavation.

‘The tombs of the large Ptolemaic necropolis adjoining the town proved in many instances to contain only crocodiles, and on Jan. 16, 1900 – a day which was otherwise memorable for producing twenty-three early Ptolemaic mummies with papyrus cartonnage – one of our workmen, disgusted at finding a row of crocodiles where he expected sarcophagi, broke one of them in pieces and disclosed the surprising fact that the creature was wrapped in sheets of papyrus.’

This type of wrapping material is known as mummy cartonnage, and was commonly used in Egypt to make mummy cases and masks. In certain periods cartonnage was made of sheets of reused papyri, which were considered waste material and were no longer of use. Many of the papyri coming from the crocodile mummies of Tebtunis were not just discarded documents. Subsequent studies have revealed that those texts were part of a large archive dated to the end of the second century BC and known as the ‘archive of Menches’. Menches, a ‘Greek born in Egypt’, was the village scribe of Kerkeosiris, a village not far from Tebtunis (a village scribe was the main official in charge of the local administration). The archive includes administrative documents produced not only during the office of Menches, but also during the offices of later village scribes, and sheds light on the administration and management of village agricultural land under the Ptolemies. Most of the documents are contracts, petitions, registers, accounts.

This is a reproduction of Menches, to be found in the corridor leading to the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP)

The archive of Menches has been the object of numerous and in-depth studies which have led students of papyrology and ancient history to travel to Berkeley to examine the original texts. But this archive is not the only group of papyri coming from mummy cartonnage that can be found in the vault of CTP.

I am currently going through several boxes which contain the so-called UC papyri (UC for University of California). These texts were brought to Berkeley in 1930’s from England, and subsequently catalogued by Philip Kase. The majority of these papyri come from mummy cartonnage, as can be seen by the quality and colour (quite dark) of the paper. So far I have come across a few accounts and one contract (possibly a lease), all written in Greek and dated to the late Ptolemaic period.

Here are a couple of examples.

Agreement (2 copies)


According to the old notes of previous scholars that accompanied these boxes of papyri, internal connections are to be found between these UC papyri and other groups of texts belonging to the collection, including the papyri that I have discussed in previous posts of this blog. The next step is now crucial, to identify these links and reconstruct the history behind the texts.

Lunch Poems with Joshua Weiner

The monthly Lunch Poems series kicks off the Spring semester series on February 5, 2015 with readings from poet Joshua Weiner. Weiner is the author of three books of poetry including his most recent, The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013). He is also the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn, and the poetry editor at Tikkun magazine. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a 2014 fellowship from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, among others. A professor of English at the University of Maryland, he lives with his family in Washington DC.

Photo of author Joshua Weiner