The Center for Tebtunis Papyri logoAncient Lives-the Tebtunis Papyri in Context header


This is an archived exhibit of The Bancroft Library, University California, Berkeley.

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Welcome to the online version of the exhibition Ancient Lives: The Tebtunis Papyri in Context, celebrating the first centennial of the archaeological and papyrological material found during the 1899/1900 excavations at Tebtunis. The exhibition accompanied a two-day conference with papers on past, present and future research on the artifacts and documents. 



Every few years, the press runs a story about ancient documents discovered in a library by some intrepid scholar. Such discoveries do indeed happen, and at The Bancroft Library we support this kind of work.

In the case of the Tebtunis Papyri , we do not know exactly what the collection contains, but we know that it is a great deal. The ancient documents displayed in these cases were unearthed 100 years ago by an expedition funded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the first woman Regent of the University of California. Despite 100 years of work, only about five percent of the tens of thousands of fragments have yielded their secrets.

Scholars have found new or variant texts of Homer and Sophocles in the collection as well as hitherto unknown literary works. By far the largest number of papyri, however, provide detailed records of life in Greco-Roman Egypt: we have crop, tax, and land records, legal documents of all kinds, crime reports, and administrative records.

But the papyri are not the only evidence we have of life in ancient Tebtunis: in the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, there are hundreds of artifacts that came from the same excavation as the papyri. In this exhibition, we have drawn on the Museum's collections to provide a tangible context for the written documents: the art, the coins, the mummies. This is the first time that these disparate objects have been brought together.

Anthony Bliss, Curator



Papyrus was the most important writing material of antiquity. It was used by various cultures around the Mediterranean from 2500 BCE up to the gradual introduction of paper from China in the latter half of the first millennium CE. The last papyrus to be used contains a Papal bull from 1057 CE.

The writing material papyrus was made from the papyrus sedge, which was ubiquitous in ancient Egypt. The stem from this sedge was first peeled; from the pith, thin strips (about 30 cm. long) were cut. One layer of these strips was placed with the plant fibers running vertically; on top of these was placed a layer with horizontal fibers. When the strips were hammered, the juices of the plant would cause them to join together, making a sheet of papyrus. Twenty such sheets were then pasted together, forming a roll of ca. 3.20 meters. Whole rolls were used for books and official reports; the text was written on the roll in columns. For smaller documents one cut off a part of the roll.

Other writing materials that were regularly used in Egypt and have survived among the Tebtunis material include potsherds (Gr. ostraka, sing. -kon), which was used for more ephemeral documents (tax receipts; writing exercises), and wood.


The Writing of the Papyri

Greek was written with a reed pen (Gr. kalamos). Texts were written in capitals and continuously without word-division, accents, commas, etc. While this may seem at first sight a major barrier to using the texts for even a native speaker, one should realize that the texts were meant to be read aloud. As is apparent from the following example, even an English text can be understood quite well when written continuously.





Egyptian was written with a brush, enabling the writer to vary the thickness of the lines. Writing with a brush was difficult to learn, and only native Egyptians seem to have mastered the craft. Whenever one finds a Greek text written with an Egyptian brush, one may conclude that the text was written by a native Egyptian. Eventually, however, Egyptians started to use the Greek rush-pen as well.

The ink used consisted of a mixture of water, gum Arabic, and soot.


The Languages of the Papyri

Most of the Tebtunis papyri were written in (ancient) Greek, the language of Egypt’s administration from Alexander the Great to the Arab conquest (332 BCE – 640 CE). Greek was also used by the native Egyptians, especially when communicating with the government, or when they themselves entered the ranks of the bureaucracy. Egyptians also continued to use their own script, demotic, which is a terrifying cursive form of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. A dozen papyri, finally, were written in Latin, which never replaced Greek as the common written language in the eastern part of the Roman empire.


Greek and Roman Egypt

The term Greco-Roman Egypt refers to that period of Egypt’s history when it was first ruled by a dynasty of kings and queens of Greek (Macedonian) extraction, the Ptolemies (332-30 BCE), and then was part of the Roman Empire (30 BCE – ca. 300 CE).

During this period, much in Egypt remained precisely the same as it had been for thousands of years. The river Nile would still rise and flood the land in August/September of each year, leaving a fertile sediment on top of the fields; farmers would still plow and sow their fields in early November, and harvest in April/May; they would still pay their dues to the state no matter who actually ran the country.

On the other hand, of course, much in Egypt changed. For one thing, the presence of foreigners in Egypt could be felt more than before. Before 332 BCE Greeks had been present in Egypt both as mercenaries and as tradesmen; in 332 BCE they came to stay, bringing with them their own language, culture, and customs. Greek soldiers from all over the then Greek world arrived in Egypt in the army of Alexander the Great and remained there. As a reward for their services, they received a substantial plot of land and settled in the Egyptian countryside in little towns such as Tebtunis.

The artifacts and papyri found at Tebtunis (and throughout the remainder of Egypt) are lively witnesses of the co-existence of these two cultures. Some examples are displayed here.

On the Greek side we find this wonderful pair of statuettes. Everything about these statuettes points to the Greek side of society: their outward appearance (with so-called Praxitelean S-curve) is Greek; the inscription they carry is Greek; the person who dedicated them (Herakles) is Greek. Nonetheless, the statuettes were found in the enclosure of the temple dedicated to the Egyptian crocodile god Soknebtunis.

On the Egyptian side we find a relief depicting the ancient Egyptian gods Sobek, Isis and Amon. These gods had been worshipped for millennia in Egypt. The style of the picture is distinctively Egyptian; it was found in the temple of the crocodile god Soknebtunis. Nonetheless, the date of this fragment is late Ptolemaic or Roman, that is, it dates to the period when Egypt was a Helenistic kingdom or part of the Roman Empire.

From Arthur Verhoogt, From Mummy to Megabyte: The First Hundred Years of the Tebtunis Papyri; a paper presented at the opening of the symposium The Tebtunis Papyri: The First 100 Years, University of California at Berkeley, September 1999. Edited by TMH, 9/2003.