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Letters to the Crocodile God Volume 60 Number 6, November/December 2007
by Marco Merola

Fragments of ancient writing illuminate 3,000 years of life in an Egyptian oasis town.


Archaeologists have been excavating on and off at Tebtunis in Egypt for a century. Here, in the north end of the city, researchers have found artifacts and structures dating from Roman times through the Islamic period. (Marco Ansaloni)

Seventy-five miles south of Cairo, hidden by shifting sands on the edge of the desert, are the remains of the ancient oasis town of Tebtunis. Archaeologists and diggers clamber over the site, a collection of impressive ruins that sprawl across nearly 100 acres and more than 3,000 years. At dusk, the exposed walls and oblique light call to mind a giant desert labyrinth. At the south end of the site are the low ruins of a Greek settlement, including a massive temple to the crocodile god Sobek. To the north, later Byzantine and Islamic ruins once stood higher--10 to 12 feet in the 1930s--before unknown assailants knocked them down. But the true value of this old town is not in its remaining walls; it is in little flecks of paper that document three millennia of life here and across this region of Egypt.

The desert swallowed Tebtunis in the twelfth century A.D., so the town does not appear on any maps. We know its name, and a great deal more, from the tens of thousands of papyrus fragments found throughout the twentieth century by a succession of archaeologists, including those working at the site today. These records, which range from pieces found in ancient garbage dumps, to sheets recycled as wrappings for mummies, to five-yard-long scrolls, include literary texts and records of private contracts and public acts. "The papyri give us particular and historic information that cannot be found elsewhere," says Claudio Gallazzi, professor of papyrology at Milan University who has led the international effort here since 1988. The papyri and other archaeological finds are painting an ever more detailed picture of life in this ethnically mixed village over a long period of time. For example, Gallazzi says, they show that there was a strong Greek presence in the town at a time when most Greeks in Egypt were thought to have lived only in big cities. They also illuminate the surrounding areas with which Tebtunis interacted and traded. "When we find a treasurer's registry, I know it contains interesting economic matters from many villages in the Fayum area, not just Tebtunis. And when we find religious documents, we can understand more about previously unrecognized religious-magic rituals [surrounding the crocodile god] pertinent to all of Egypt," he adds.


The papyri found at Tebtunis illuminate many aspects of life, including religious rituals, reports of crimes, legal documents and contracts, and personal communications. (Marco Ansaloni)

Gallazzi puts on a pair of white gloves to remove a piece of papyrus from the ground with very thin tweezers. Since 1998, the Italian-French mission has found 7,000 papyri and many inscribed potsherds. This is one of the very few places in Egypt where archaeologists are still unearthing papyrus fragments. And the finds here are startlingly diverse, written in Arabic, Coptic, Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian demotic, a simplified, cursive form of hieratic writing.

"Many are concerned with administrative procedures, but also include contracts, receipts, inventories, letters, and school exercises, as well as copies of literary works by Homer, Menander, and Euripides," says Gallazzi, who seems to be able to read ancient papyri the way you're reading this article.

He continues talking about spectacular recent finds as he carefully handles some very small papyrus rolls in good condition and still closed with sealing clay.

"The archive of the crocodile god's temple was emptied from time to time and we found where all those papyri were thrown away. It is truly a treasure," he says. "We recently found 300 oracular cards there that date back to the third century B.C. They contain requests from common people to Sobek on what to do in certain situations."

Among the cards, Gallazzi found one that reads "...if Thamista was the man who has stolen my bronze pot, give me this card... " He found five others just like it, each containing a different name--essentially a suspect lineup from which Sobek could pick out the culprit. "We didn't know this ritual before," he says. "So we think now that all over Egypt people used to write these cards when they couldn't find a thief or a killer."

"Having the ability to study people's daily lives in detail and across centuries is the dream of every archaeologist. Tebtunis is the evidence that dreams can come true," he says. "Now you can walk along the streets and imagine the village 2,000 years ago."

Marco Merola is ARCHAEOLOGY's Naples correspondent.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America