The Surprising Ink Recipe of an Ancient Scribe

By Leah Packard-Grams
Ancient History & Mediterranean Archaeology PhD student
Center for the Tebtunis Papyri


Writers in the modern world often have a favorite pen, a preferred color of ink, or quirky handwriting, and ancient writers were no different! Scribal habits are a topic of increasing interest among scholars who study the ancient Mediterranean, and UC Berkeley’s papyrus collection is full of possibilities for the topic that has set researchers abuzz.

UC Berkeley’s collection of papyri, housed in the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP) on the fourth floor of The Bancroft Library, was excavated from the sands of Egypt 123 years ago, but it has often been remarked that the collection is rich enough to provide work for generations of scholars. The papyri provide crucial insights for our knowledge of daily life in Egypt and can illuminate individual priests, artisans, and scribes in extraordinary detail. One specific group of papyri caught my attention when CTP Director Todd Hickey mentioned it in a graduate course a few years ago: the archive of a scribe who worked for a local record-office in the 70-60s BCE. Since his name has not yet been deciphered from the surviving papyri, scholars refer to him as “Scribe X”. His papyri were found in the crocodile mummies excavated in Tebtunis, Egypt, on behalf of UC Berkeley over a century ago.

A crocodile mummy on display in the Object Lessons exhibit, Spring 2020A reed pen from Tebtunis held in the Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley, object no. 6-21420.
1. (Left: A crocodile mummy on display in the Object Lessons exhibit, Spring 2020. Right: a reed pen from Tebtunis held in the Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley, object no. 6-21420.)

The Scribe X papyri have been examined by several scholars, and two of them have been published in full, while dozens of fragments remain to be edited.1 Previous researchers have found this archive to be unique: It not only represents the oldest collection of documents from a village record-office (grapheion in Greek), it also displays the earliest use of the reed pen (kalamos in Greek) to write the Demotic Egyptian script, which was traditionally written with a rush. The Egyptian scribes of this era did not use the reed pen for Demotic so far as we know, and it would be decades before the reed was used with regularity for the Demotic script. In other words, Scribe X had a favorite pen, and he used it even though it differentiated him from the other scribes around him. This prompted a question: If the scribe used an “atypical” writing instrument, was the ink he used likewise “atypical”? 

A selection of lines from Scribe X’s account papyrus P.Tebt.UC 2489, displaying Demotic and Greek written on the same document, both written with the reed pen.
2. (A selection of lines from Scribe X’s account papyrus P.Tebt.UC 2489, displaying Demotic and Greek written on the same document, both written with the reed pen.)

Previous studies by a team of researchers in Europe have proved that there was a shift when scribes began to add copper sulfate to ancient inks of this period in the region of Tebtunis.2 This was a development from the earlier Egyptian ink recipe of gum arabic, soot, and water. In later periods, metallic elements such as lead and copper were intentionally added to the ink to make it more durable. Did this innovative scribe use a more recent ink recipe, or the traditional gum-soot-water recipe? 

To find out, a chemical analysis using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF) was conducted in collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Archaeological Research Facility. One reason scholars favor the use of XRF for testing ancient objects is because it is nondestructive and extremely safe. A portable XRF spectrometer from the Archaeological Research Facility was brought to the Center for Tebtunis Papyri, where Dr Jesse Obert (a recent PhD from the Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology) and I scanned multiple papyri from the Scribe X archive. The XRF spectrometer contains both an x-ray emitter with a precise 5 mm beam as well as a detector which identifies photons that are ejected from the atom when it is exposed to the x-rays. Different elements emit different photon signatures, and the detector “reads” the photon signatures to identify which elements are present in the atoms of the scanned area. We selected nine areas on one bilingual papyrus for scanning and included a number of uninscribed areas on the papyrus as a control. Several other papyrus fragments from the archive were also scanned in subsequent months.

Dr Jesse Obert performing the initial scan with the portable XRF

3. (Dr Jesse Obert performing the initial scan with the portable XRF)

The results of the scans were surprising: The machine did not detect any metallic elements in the ink whatsoever. From this information, we can infer that Scribe X used the traditional ink recipe without any of the ink additives that were popular in the era! Such a finding was unforeseen because studies of comparable papyri did not attest to the use of this ink. At the same time, however, it is somewhat un-surprising, because it is well known that Ancient Egyptian traditions in art, religion, language, and culture endured even beyond Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE. What this project has proven is that this ancient ink recipe was one of these enduring traditions, holding on longer than previously thought in the area of Tebtunis. 

In April 2023, I presented this study in a poster for the annual meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt and received first place in the “Best Student Poster Competition.”3 More research on the archive is forthcoming (stay tuned for an upcoming feature in the Fall 2023 issue of Fiat Lux!). The project inspired me to get my own certification in XRF scanning, and my work with the archive has allowed me to become familiar with this scribe, his quirks, and his writing habits. The project and the prestigious award it has received are testaments to the open, collaborative attitude of UC Berkeley researchers working across disciplines and across the many research facilities and hubs across campus. I am extremely grateful to Dr Todd Hickey, Dr Jesse Obert, Dr Nicholas Tripcevich, and Directors of The Bancroft Library Charles Faulhaber and Kate Donovan, whose support and encouragement has enabled this project to come to fruition!


  1. The two papyri published thus far are edited by Parker 1972 and Muhs & Dieleman 2006. For assessment of the Demotic material, see Muhs 2009 and 2010. The Greek material was surveyed in Hoogendijk 2013.
  2. See the XRF ink study in Christiansen et al., 2017.
  3. See Packard-Grams 2023.



Christiansen, Thomas, et al. “Chemical Characterization of Black and Red Inks Inscribed on Ancient Egyptian Papyri: The Tebtunis Temple Library.” JAS Reports 17, 2017, pp. 208-219.

Hoogendijk, Francisca A.J.. “Greek Contracts Belonging to the Late Ptolemaic Tebtynis grapheion Archive?” in Das Fayyûm in Hellenismus und Kaiserzeit: Fallstudien zu multikulturellem Leben in der Antike, Carolin Arlt, Martin Andreas Stadler, and Ulrike Weinmann, eds., Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013, pp. 63-74.

Muhs, Brian. “The Berkeley Tebtunis Grapheion Archive,” in Actes du IXe Congrès des études démotiques, G. Widmer and D. Devauchelle, eds. BiEtud. 147. Cairo, 2009, pp. 243-252.

Muhs, Brian. “A Late Ptolemaic grapheion Archive in Berkeley,” in Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth International Congress of Papyrology, Ann Arbor, 2007. American Studies in Papyrology, Ann Arbor, 2010, pp. 581-588.

Muhs, Brian, and Jacco Dieleman. “A Bilingual Account from Late Ptolemaic Tebtunis.”  Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, vol. 133, 2006, pp. 56-65.

Packard-Grams, L. . “New Pen & Old Ink: XRF Analysis of a Unique Archive from 1st c. BCE  Tebtunis,” X-Ray Fluorescence Reports: Archaeological Research Facility: UC Berkeley eScholarship Publications. 2023.

Parker, R.A. “An Abstract of a Loan in Demotic from the Fayum.” Revue d’Égyptologie 24, 1972, pp. 129-136.

Tebtunis papyri to be featured in new exhibition

The Papyrus in the Crocodile: 150 Years of Excavation, Exploration, Collection, and Stewardship at Berkeley

May 4 – July 29, 2016

Bancroft Library Gallery, University of California, Berkeley

Papyri from the collection of the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri will be featured in an upcoming public exhibition in the Bancroft Library gallery. The exhibition is curated by participants in a Berkeley graduate seminar on the history of antiquities collecting at the University. The following are excerpts from the official press release:

“The collections assembled by Berkeley’s many patrons and collectors over the last 150 years have formed the core and foundation of a wide variety of the university’s academic disciplines. The Papyrus in the Crocodile embodies Berkeley’s motto fiat lux (“let there be light”) by illuminating a key selection of these invaluable objects as testaments to the cosmopolitan ideologies of Berkeley’s visionary patrons and donors – whose own lives were scarcely less fascinating than the archeological, ethnographic and aesthetic materials they amassed. In gathering together artifacts from repositories across the university, this exhibition sheds light on the history of acquisitions and encounters that have contributed to the academic diversity celebrated on the Berkeley campus, and recognizes the remarkable men and women who enthusiastically fulfilled University President Benjamin Ide Wheeler’s call to collect for the sake of research and the creation of new knowledge.

The Papyrus in the Crocodile begins by highlighting one of the university’s greatest contributors, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, and the exceptional collections compiled under her patronage. In 1899, Hearst heeded the advice of Egyptologist George A. Reisner to fund an expedition for Oxford papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt. As they excavated in the sands of the Egyptian necropolis at ancient Tebtunis, they uncovered [papyrus fragments] including 2nd-century BCE texts stuffed inside mummified crocodiles. The artifacts from that excavation entered the university’s new Museum of Anthropology (since renamed the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology) and the papyrus texts went to the Bancroft Library where they are now housed at the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri.

“Visitors to the show will find the excavated papyrus fragments, including a magical amulet charm guarding against fever, displayed alongside one of the mummified crocodiles. No longer used as stuffing, each papyrus safely resides within a custom-made glass mount, one of the key conservation achievements of the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri. Photographs and documents of the Hearst Egyptian Expedition recreate the scene of the excavation and the excitement of the researchers at their fortuitous find.

“For the young Californian university, founded in 1868, the turn-of-the-century expeditions to the far corners of the world brought back research materials that propelled Berkeley ahead as a beacon of research and learning on par with any of its more-established East Coast and European counterparts. This exhibition showcases the diverse nature of Berkeley’s collections, which span multiple continents, representing diverse cultures, and encompassing a wide range of materials and mediums. …

“This exhibition is the capstone event to a three-year grant for Graduate Study in Curatorial Preparedness and Object-Based Learning from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Curated by students in the Mellon Exhibition Graduate Seminar, The Papyrus in the Crocodile represents the culmination of a year’s worth of research, selection, organization, and writing from students representing the fields of art history, anthropology, history, and religion. …

“In addition to the exhibition, students are working on individual research papers based on objects in Berkeley’s collections. These papers will be presented at a public symposium on May 4, 2016 from 1 to 5 pm at the Women’s Faculty Club, UC Berkeley. All are welcome.”

Tebtunis goes to Vegas

What do Tebtunis and Las Vegas have in common? Well, not the gambling (at least not as far as we know!). Surprisingly enough, the two towns do show some similarities: they are both surrounded by a desert, they both see, at some point in their history, the presence of a lively community of people of Greek descent, who far away from Greece, gather together to preserve their Hellenic heritage. The chronological span of this presence of course differs from a place to another: while a Greek community could be identified in Tebtunis for several centuries from the third century BC into the third century AD, a Greek community gathered in Las Vegas only for a few days in October 2015. I’m talking about the annual meeting of the National Hellenic Society (NHS), a festive event that gathers together members of the Society as well as a number of guests, for one purpose: the celebration of Hellenic culture.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the inclusion of CTP in the Heritage and Culture Panel, during which Tebtunis was in great company. Patricia Moore-Pastides, the University of South Carolina’s first lady and public health professional, engaged the public with a fascinating defense of the Greek diet, convincingly demonstrating how eating well can improve our overall lifestyle. Chad Cohen and Jared Lipworth, National Geographic producers, presented a preview of the documentary ‘The Greeks’ (aired next Spring on PBS), impressing with images and clips of some of the cultural achievements of the ancient Greek civilization, including the spectacular Sicilian temples and Greek tragedies.

But first came Tebtunis and its papyri.In the spirit of the event, my presentation explored, through a selection of papyri from CTP, the ways in which the Hellenic culture penetrated into a remote but lively Egyptian village during the Hellenistic and Roman periods: through literature, as documented by the papyri including the work of Sophocles and Homer; through social gatherings and communal celebrations, as attested, for example, by the festival for Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest; and through the language, which over time became the official language of the administration of Egypt.

How did the people of Tebtunis live? What do we learn from the papyri? These were the central questions asked in the presentation. Among the papyri discussed are of course some of the unique pieces yielded by the Berkeley collection, like a fragment in Greek of the lost original, in Latin, Chronicle of the Trojan War, but Dictys of Crete

and a fragment of a lost satyr play by Sophocles, the Inachos.

The Tebtunis papyri give voice to the people who read Homer and Euripides, to those who owned estates and land, and to women, like Zois, who appears in a sale of land as a consenting wife. Her husband Didumos is selling his plot of land, and to be final the sale needs his wife’s approval. ‘Hellenism’ and the celebration of it could be seen everywhere over the weekend, and once the panel presentations were over it was time for party. At the Glendi dinner offered on the Friday night, everybody dressed in white and delicious Greek food and wine were appropriately accompanied by live Greek music and group dances.

The setting (an open portico), a sky full of stars and the warm air all contributed to recreate the vibe and atmosphere of a Greek late summer evening, and it was exciting to see the Tebtunis Papyri showcased at this unique event!

Euripides, Dionysus and school exercises

‘I, the son of Zeus, have come to this land of the Thebans’

The beginning of one of the greatest (and most famous) Greek tragedies, this line from The Bacchae by Euripides has resonated countless times in theatres from all over the world for the past two millennia. The son of Zeus speaking is Dionysus, the unconventional god of wine and theatre, who went to the city of Thebes to take revenge against those who had claimed that he was not the son of Zeus. With him came the Bacchae, the possessed female followers of Dionysus, mad and murderous.

Theatrical performances and books, however, were not the only places where this line could be heard or read. Indeed in antiquity the incipit of The Bacchae was also used as a writing exercise. That is exactly what happened in Egypt, as documented by an unpublished papyrus from the village of Tebtunis, dated approximately to the second century BC, when Egypt was a Hellenistic kingdom.

Despite the fragmentary state of the papyrus, words from the first line of The Bacchae are still clearly visible. I add here the Greek version of the line for those who would like to do some matching game:

The Euripidean line is repeated at least four times in these fragments, and it is written in a somewhat school boy hand. Someone here was learning to write in Greek. The pupil in question was not a beginner, as he already knew how to write letters and words. Writing short passages from poets represented indeed some sort of intermediate educational level, appropriate for those, like our pupil, needed to improve their handwriting skills. Among the favorite authors chosen for this level (and for the upper level too) there were Homer, Euripides and Menander, each representative of a specific literary genre, respectively epic poetry, tragedy and comedy. There was not, however, a formal school, with a standardized program, where pupils attended classes to learn to read and write. There were, instead, what we might call ‘school contexts’, that is places and situations where teaching and learning took place, which could have been a private house, a porch as well as a temple. Pupils were not only young people, but also adults. It is difficult to tell who the pupil of our papyrus was: an Egyptian who was learning Greek? Or a Greek who was learning to write? It doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that people in Egypt were learning to write Greek and were doing so by reading passages from the tragedies of Euripides or the epic poems of Homer. Our school exercise was not an isolated case. A large number of similar examples have come down to us from Egypt for both the Hellenistic and Roman periods, documenting the widespread will (or pressing necessity) of the people of Egypt, Greeks as well as Egyptians, to learn how to write in Greek (below are two more examples from Tebtunis). How not to be amazed at this phenomenon! To put this in context, think of our contemporary multi-cultural societies. People move continuously, they migrate to other countries, learn new languages. In England, for example, there is a large community of Indian people who, though speaking perfect English, still strive to preserve their own language, culture and traditions. English people, however, are certainly not learning any of the languages of India. That is because, despite the presence of several different ethnic groups, England remains fundamentally English, socially more multi-cultural, but still English. In Egypt things went differently. With the arrival of the Greeks in the third century BC, Egypt did not remain fundamentally Egyptian, and although native language and traditions never disappeared, Greek language gradually took over (see School exercises represented just another way through which Greek spread.

Sayings about Demosthenes and Epaminondas (P.Mil. Vogl. VI 263, AD II) Miscellaneous collection of poetic lines (PSI XI Congr. 3, AD I)

Greek takes over

In the study of papyri and ancient history Egypt is usually referred to as Graeco-Roman Egypt for the period going from the third century BC to approximately the third century AD, during which time the country was first under the Ptolemies (III-I BC) and then under the Romans (AD I-III). The phrase Graeco-Roman Egypt, the significance of which has been long debated, simply points to the existence of a multi-cultural society where Egyptian, Greek and, later on, Roman customs and traditions met and intermingled. Various elements of Greek culture found their way into Egypt with the arrival of the Ptolemies; some kept their original form and nature, some others underwent a more or less deep transformation and acquired a somehow hybrid connotation. Religion was of course one of these elements (see post, but not the only one.

The most representative element to mark the encounter between the Greeks and the Egyptians is certainly the language. Greek penetrated into Egypt in the third century BC as the language of the rulers, and for a time was used only by Greek settlers. But this state of things was bound to change soon. With Egypt quickly becoming a multi-cultural society, Greek became increasingly more popular. And not only among the Hellenic strata of the population. Greek also started to be used by many Egyptians in private correspondence and business documents, a phenomenon that seems to have increased in the Roman period. Under the Ptolemies both demotic-Egyptian and Greek were adopted in the administration, but around 146 BC a royal decree was imposed whereby Egyptian contracts (that is contracts written in demotic) required Greek subscriptions in order to be valid. This seeminlgy simple requirement was the beginning of a big social and cultural change in the life of the Egyptians. Towards the end of the first century AD, as a result of a Roman policy, demotic completely disappeared from administration and legal documents, making Greek the official language of Egypt.

Here are two examples of demotic documents dated to the Ptolemaic period (II BC) with Greek subscriptions, from the Tebtunis collection at CTP.

P.Tebt. III 982 P.Tebt. II 571

A festival for Demeter

In Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt a number of religious festivals were celebrated regularly in honor of various deities, both Greek and Egyptian, in the cities as well as in the countryside. Festivals were not simply a time for the gods, but also a special occasion for the whole community to gather together and feast, in the name of a sense of collectivity that characterized especially villages. The festival in honor of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, was one of these occasions.

Known in Greece as Thesmophoria, in Egypt this festival also took the name of Demetreia. In the Ptolemaic period it became very popular in the Fayum, and a papyrus from the Berkeley collection, dated somewhere between the late third and the early second century BC, informs us that it was celebrated in Tebtunis too.

That of Demeter was a typical Greek cult, and festivals in honor of this deity took place in Egypt in Greek and Hellenized areas. With the arrival of the Ptolemies (and of the Macedonian settlers), Tebtunis, like other Fayum villages, underwent a process of Hellenization which embraced language, administration, law, and of course religion, as is attested by the very presence of the Demetreia. The Berkeley papyrus in question lists a series of payments for wine, made on the occasion of the festival to Demeter. The exact date is not preserved, but it is possible that the event took place at the same time as the Thesmophoria-Demetreia at Alexandria, that is at the end of November (which is also the time when this festival was celebrated at Athens). The papyrus confirms that the festival for Demeter was also a time for gifts, for both men and women. Wine was received as a gift, and among the beneficiaries we find in our document the Greeks Theodoros and Dorotheos. Another specific characteristic of this festival was the sacrifice of a pig, a typical Greek practice which the Egyptians didn’t seem to have a problem to accept.

Religious festivals and, later, celebrations in honor of the Roman emperors remained a fundamental feature of village life at Tebtunis for the centuries to come, and defined the very identity of that society. Whether it was a Greek deity to be celebrated or an Egyptian one, a strong sense of community and desire to gather for feasting together became the backbone of these village festivals.

A village of literature

It is generally believed that in the ancient world literature was produced in cities and circulated mainly in major cultural, religious and economic centers. The papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt, however, have demonstrated that that was not always the case, and that literature could be found in villages too. A special role was played by the villages in the Fayum (ancient Arsinoite district), where the Greek presence was particularly strong (this was the district where, under the early Ptolemies, the Greek soldiers were given land and settled). Of the Fayum villages, Tebtunis stands out as the best documented ‘literary village’. In other words, most of the literary texts which have been preserved from the Graeco-Roman Fayum come from Tebtunis. The Homeric poems were very popular, as one would expect, and the first two books of the Iliad seem to have been largely preferred over the others. Twenty-five Homeric pieces are so far known to have come from Tebtunis, mostly dated to the Roman period, and the great majority are kept at the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP) here at Berkeley. To these we need to add a few new pieces that were dispersed in several boxes after the 1899/1900 excavation and found only in recent times (read, for example, the post on the Odyssey piece, and the more recent post on the Iliad fragments, whose publication is underway But it was not just Homer. A varied array of literary texts is attested to have circulated in Tebtunis, including the Greek tragic poet Euripides, the lyric poet Pindar and the historian Xenophon. Such a wide circulation of literature in a village is remarkable and should not be taken for granted. It points indeed to the existence of an eliterian readership made up of those Greeks who resided in the village and certainly did not want to give up the privilege of reading ‘best seller’ books. Some literary texts, like Iliad books I and II, were also used as schoolbooks.

In the meantime, new literary texts keep coming up from the boxes of unpublished material kept at CTP, adding new information to our understanding of the nature of Greek literature in the village. Sometimes, however, a papyrus comes to light that preserves a literary text unknown to us. It is the case of P.Tebt. 896, dated to the second century BC, and P.Tebt. 897, dated to the late third century BC.

Both papyri come from mummy cartonnage, a wrapping material that was used to make mummy cases and masks (see The first one includes two columns written in capital letters, the script used for literary texts. Interestingly, a study of the papyrus has not been able to reveal what text we are dealing with, nor do we know the author. All we know is that it is probably a philosophical text. The second papyrus is written in a more cursive hand, and includes lines of what seems to have been a scientific treatise. Again, the author has not yet been identified. Both papyri need further investigation, as it is clear that we are in front of new texts. Papyri like P.Tebt. 896 and 897 are not rare, and many other cases are to be found in the Berkeley collection. A future study of these papyri as a whole has the potential to shed new light on the state of literature and its readership in Tebtunis, both under the Ptolemies and under the Romans.

Ancient Egypt, science and Greek literature

To most, the thread that connects ancient Egypt to science and literature is the Library of Alexandria. Founded in third century BC by Ptolemy I Soter, the first king of the Ptolemaic dynasty that would rule in Egypt for the next three centuries, the library (in Greek bibliotheke) soon became a major cultural center in the ancient world, attracting the most renowned students and thinkers of the time. Although the history and size of the library of Alexandria are now shrouded in some aura of mystery, mostly due to its destruction in later periods, ancient sources confirmed that it contained a remarkably large collection of papyrus scrolls (what we call ‘books’), covering a wide spectrum of fields, from medicine, astronomy and physics to geography and literature, just to mention a few. Philology, that is the study of textual criticism, became one of the main and most developed fields of studies in the Hellenistic period, and the library of Alexandria played a fundamental role in the development and promotion of new philological methodologies. A scholar that well embodied the establishment of this new discipline is Callimachos. A Greek erudite, he was raised in the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya, and educated in Athens, before moving to Alexandria, where he worked in the library. Among the most famous chief librarians is Eratosthenes, another Greek from Cyrene who received his education in Athens. Eratosthenes is mainly known to have been the first to measure the circumference of the Earth. However, he was not only a mathematician. His interests were broader, ranging from geography to poetry.

In today’s busy society, universities replaced the ancient libraries as large centers of research, while time constraints and the need to be specialized in one specific field have made culture more compartmentalized than ever. Yet, the fascination of the ancient world has not died out. Regardless of what our job is, we cannot help but stand in awe in front of the Athenian Parthenon or be captivated by the immensity of the Egyptian pyramids. And it is not just fascination. The ancient world is an integral part of our heritage and history (although often we seem to forget that), and knowledge of that history never fails to result in innovative ideas and creative empiral interpretations when applied not only in fields like politics, but also in the social settings of everyday life.

Leonidas Petrakis, who holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and was recently Department Chairman and Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is a perfect example of the ways in which literature and science meet. Not only passionate about the ancient world, Leonidas has a deep knowledge of the ancient Greek language and culture. In a fascinating article that he has published a while back in the largest Greek American newspaper, The National Herald, he investigated the relation between ancient Greeks and modern science (a link to his article can be found here:

Recently Leonidas spent some time at the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP) working on unpublished texts. Thousands of pieces here at CTP are still kept in boxes, waiting to be unfolded, read and analyzed. Leonidas went through the fragments of one of these boxes, and patiently examined each piece. His efforts were soon rewarded when he found three small papyri written in the unmistakably capital hand-writing used for literary works. The three pieces included lines from the Iliad by Homer. This remarkable discovery has the potential to shed further light on the culture and society of the people living in Tebtunis, Egypt, over 2,000 years ago. A confirmation that ancient villages were not mere rural settlements, but could play the more important role of mini-cultural centers, where world-class literature, like Homer, had an independent tradition of dissemination. Leonidas is currently in the process of editing these two fragments for publication, in collaboration with the writer of this blog and with the director of CTP, Professor Todd Hickey. This edition will illuminate important issues, such divulgation and readership of Greek literature in a village of the Roman Empire.

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.

The most honored Kronion

After a few weeks’ break, due to the holidays and to a conference, it is now time to publish here the first post of 2015. I have been debating what papyrus and topic would be most suitable for opening the series of blog posts for the new year, and then today I have decided on this one: a business letter from Philotas to the most honored Kronion.

Before giving you the details of this letter, I would like to explain the reason behind this choice, that is my attendance at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in New Orleans, January 8-11, 2015 This is is an unmissable event for all classicists and ancient historians from the US and from all over the world, as it gives scholars and students the chance to meet and exchange views on topics of shared interests, and to foster future work relationships. Of particular interest to me is the American Society of Papyrologists panel, a paper session entirely dedicated to the study of culture and society in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Egypt, organized and chaired by our very own Todd Hickey, director of the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP) and Associate Professor of Classics at UC Berkeley. This year, among the six papers of the session, there was also mine, entitled ‘Village elites in Roman Egypt: the case of first-century Tebtunis,’ in which I discussed the role and composition of the elites of Tebtunis, and presented some of the findings of the research I am conducting at CTP. As I already mentioned in previous posts, an important part of the village elites was a group of Hellenic and Hellenized families, who owned large plots of land and engaged in money lending activities. Indeed the papyrus I am presenting today is a further example of the involvement of members of these families in the economy of the village.

It is again a letter. The sender is a certain Philotas, who is not otherwise identified, but who was clearly proficient at writing in Greek. Incidentally, a man called Philotas seems to appear as the recipient of another letter, also discussed in this blog The two letters, however, do not seem to be related to each other, and it is very likely that we are dealing with two different people.

The recipient is a man called Kronion, who is given the prestigious title of timiotatos, that is ‘the most honored’. In letters this title was usually conferred to recipients who held a preeminent position. Who was this Kronion it is difficult to say, but I would like to note that one Kronion titled as ‘the most honored’ is attested in another letter from Tebtunis, dated to the second century AD. This letter belongs to the archive of the descendants of Patron, a very wealthy family of Hellenic descent who owned land near Tebtunis and held magistracies in the district capital, Arsinoe, in the first and second centuries AD. Unfortunately no photograph is available of this letter, but I will give here a short summary of its content (the letter is published as P.Mil.Vogl. VI 281, that is in the Papyri of the University of Milan, vol. 6). Geminos, a member of the Patron family, asks Kronion the most honored to go into his (Geminos’) utility room and get the beam to give to the merchants. Then he asks to be sent a donkey, so that he can return (to Tebtunis presumably). Is this Kronion to be identified with the Kronion of our letter? It is not to be excluded. Indeed connections between the archive of the descendants of Patron and unpublished Tebtunis papyri here at CTP have been noted in the past, and a study of these links, which I am currently undertaking, will shed further light on the role of the Hellenic elite in the village.

Our letter is not dated, but the handwriting can be plausibly assigned to both the first and the second century AD. The full content is not entirely clear because the central section is abraded, but a reference to the gilding of an indefinite object seems to confirm that we are dealing with a business letter. The gilding process was probably entrusted to specialized goldsmiths, who in Tebtunis are attested to have formed a professional association. More about the content of this letter will emerge from a detailed analysis of an infrared photograph of the papyrus.

An address can be seen on the back of the papyrus (at the bottom), as was common in letters from Greco-Roman Egypt.