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Object Lessons: The Egyptian Collections of the University of California, Berkeley: Creating Writing

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Creating Writing in Ancient Egypt

Sandal from Roman TebtunisSkilled workers produced not only a writing medium – papyrus – from the marsh plant Cyperus papyrus but also boats, rope, baskets, and other objects. Light but strong, flexible but durable, a sheet of papyrus offered an excellent surface for the ancient Egyptians to record their accounts, stories, or religious texts and to transmit them to future generations. Egypt’s dry climate preserved many of these objects alongside other artifacts of everyday life (and death).

 

 

Sandal Made of Reed or Papyrus

Tebtunis, Roman Period (First to Fourth Century CE)

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 6-20461

 

Writing Tablet

Papyrus was not the only object on which scribes wrote. A wax-coated wood tablet or a piece of stone or pottery, known as an ostrakon, could substitute for school work or a quick note. Egyptian hieroglyphs could be carved into stone, as the authors might wish their words to be seen for millennia. The codex, a form recognizable now in the modern book, was an innovation of the Roman period. It comprised folded papyrus or parchment sheets sewn between protective covers.

 

Writing Tablet with Wax

Tebtunis, Roman Period (First to Fourth Century CE)

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 6-20402

 

Cursive Egyptian scripts—namely hieratic (a cursive form of hieroglyphs) and demotic (a derivation of hieroglyphs from the Graeco-Roman period)—were mostly written with a brush dipped into ink made of charcoal, an adhesive, and water. Greek scribes, however, favored a reed pen with a cut nib that suited the finer lines of their alphabetic script.

Papyrus as Plant and Object

Papyrus Plant

Cyperus papyrus L.

Papyrus is a sedge that grows in shallow water in Mediterranean countries, parts of central Africa, and Madagascar. The plant can reach up to four meters tall and has a triangular shaped stalk.

 

Papyrus Plant


Greek Papyri: The Rediscovery of the Ancient World

Dir. Mirek Dohnal, 1971
University College London


Tomb-Scenes Depicting Papyrus Processing
Watercolor paintings of the decoration on the walls of the tomb of Puyemre

 

Men Gathering Papyrus
Facsimile artist Hugh R. Hopgood, 1914–1916
Original tomb painting Thebes, Dynasty 18 (ca. 1479–1458 BCE)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1930, Acc. No. 30.4.11

 

Men Splitting Papyrus
Facsimile artist Hugh R. Hopgood, 1914–1916
Original tomb painting Thebes, Dynasty 18 (ca. 1479–1458 BCE)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1930, Acc. No. 30.4.10


“You know that I am blameless, and you went away from me for no reason without giving me money. I bought two rolls of papyrus…”

Aurelius Sarapion’s writes to his brother Polion and his father Diogenes to ask for help

Tebtunis Town, T-334, Third Century CE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, P.Tebt. II 420

 

State Restrictions on the Sale of Papyri

Letter from Sokonopis, overseer for the distribution of the state papyrus supply, introducing the new papyrus contractor for the village of Talei

Tebtunis, Cartonnage from Mummy 123, 27 October 159 BCE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, P.Tebt. III 709

The Written Word

P.Tebt. 227An Unexpected Choice

 

In the first century BCE, many officials could function in both Greek and demotic Egyptian. The excavations at Tebtunis yielded several archives of papyri that had been reused to wrap and stuff crocodile mummies. These documents belong to a bilingual group of a texts from an archive of a scribal office (grapheion) from the town of Theogonis near Tebtunis. Thes texts and others in the archive stand out because the scribe chose to write demotic with a reed pen. His preferred implement was normally used by writers of Greek, while Egyptian texts were usually written with a brush.

 

Abstract of a loan for Paesis written in demotic Egyptian with a reed pen

Tebtunis, Cartonnage from Crocodile 1, 22 March 63 BCE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, P.Tebt. I 227

 

Fragmentary register of contracts written in demotic Egyptian with a reed pen

Tebtunis, Cartonnage from Crocodile 1, 68–69 BCE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, P.Tebt. I 228


Confirmation of Priestly Qualifications

The high priest of Egypt’s positive verdict on the application for priestly office of two individuals from Tebtunis

Tebtunis Town, T-12, 161–162 CE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, P.Tebt. II 291


Writing Egyptian Language in a Greek Script

 

Letter from Joseph to Bishop Pesynthios of Koptos

Koptos, ca. 569–632 CE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, P.Berk. 1

 

Parchment fragment from a codex with portions of Ezekiel and Psalms in Coptic

Egypt, ca. Fifth to Seventh Century CE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, P.Berk. 2

 

Coptic Alphabet

 

 

Coptic Alphabet: Letters that were added to the Greek alphabet are in the right column

Writing, Drawing, Making

Putting Pen to Papyrus

 

Model of Granary - Metropolitan Museum of Art 20.3.11Egyptian scribes are often depicted on tomb walls holding a long, thin brush and a scribal palette. They sit with a roll of papyrus draped over their crossed legs. These authors, administrators, and artists kept the tools of their trade with them even in the afterlife.  The ink pot and reed pen were buried with their owner in a tomb in a cemetery near Tebtunis. There are dried remnants of the charcoal-based ink that was commonly used in Egypt within the wooden container, which has a matching lid. The pen was made by cutting a nib at the end of a hollow reed. A stone palette was used to mix dried black or red ink cakes with water.

 

Ink pot with lid and reed pen

 

Ink Pot and Lid

Tebtunis Cemetery 8, First to Third Century CE

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 6-21419 a,b

 

Reed Pen

Tebtunis Cemetery 8, First to Third Century CE

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 6-21420

 

Schist Stone for Mixing Ink

Naga ed-Deir Tomb N 971 (= N 988), Dynasty 5 or 6 (2465–2150 BCE)

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 6-19072


Ostraka: Reusing Broken Objects

 

While papyrus was a common writing medium, there were alternatives. Broken pottery, which was readily at hand, served as a convenient surface for jotting down short notes, lists, or receipts. Ostraka were freely available to scribes wanting to draft letters or for students learning the basics of reading and writing. For these and other short-lived texts, such as prescriptions or magical spells given to patients for home consultation, ostraka were temporary objects, discarded after use. Figured ostraka are fragments, usually stone flakes or potsherds, illustrated with the sketches by ancient artisans.

 

Receipt for a Tax (epitriton)

Tebtunis, 6–5 BCE?

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, O.Tebt. 6

 

List of Names

Tebtunis, Second Century CE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, O.Tebt. 9

 

Receipt for Two Sacks Issued to an Enslaved Person

Tebtunis, Second or Third Centuries CE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, O.Tebt. 12

 

Figured ostrakonFigured Ostrakon

Naga ed-Deir Cemetery, 3000–300 BCE

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 6-15558


Writing on and Working with Wood

 

PAHMA Reisner Photo Naga ed-Deir B4475

Figurine from a boat model

Naga ed-Deir Tomb N 9090, Dynasty 11 or 12 (2040–1783 BCE)

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 6-14951

 

Tomb niche with a boat model and other wooden figurines

Photographer Unknown

Naga ed-Deir Tomb N 202, 1901–1904

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, excavation photo B4475

 

Bilingual mummy label of Pachom, son of Panetbau

Upper Egypt?, Second or Third Century CE

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, T.Tebt. 1

 

Greek Writing on a Wooden Commodity Label

Egypt, Second or Third Century CE

Note identifying a shipment through a wine-merchant, with a hole to attach it to a container

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, T.Berk. 1


Limestone fragment with hieroglyphic texts from a false-door

Saqqara, Reign of pharaoh Teti (2323–2291 BCE)

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, I.Berk. 1