Wheat, wine and wool: What old account statements reveal
Credit: Gunnar Bartsch / Universität Würzburg
Imagine archaeologists working 2,000 years from now to decipher the account statements of a large commercial enterprise that ended up in the bin in 2018 and have been forgotten since. The majority of these notes are in a deplorable condition: eaten by mice, glued together, torn and fragmentary, and written in a strange script that cannot be found in any other place. What makes the work even more difficult is that the individual scraps of paper are not neatly collected in one place, but are distributed across many museums and libraries in Europe. Which is why, for example, no one has yet noticed that the upper half of a rather unfortunate note is in Vienna, while the lower half is in Berlin.
€450,000 from France and Germany
We must confess: The comparison with today’s account statements isn’t quite correct. Nevertheless, it provides a good picture of the work that Egyptologists from the Julius-Maximilians-University of Würzburg (JMU) and their colleagues from Bordeaux will be doing in the coming years. DimeData: This is the name of the research project that the French Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) have now approved. The two institutions will provide around €450,000 over the next three years, a good half of which will go to the JMU. The project leader there is Professor Martin Andreas Stadler, holder of the Chair of Egyptology, and Lecturer Dr. Maren Schentuleit, research assistant to the Chair, will be responsible for the concrete work.
The aim of the project is to investigate the Egyptian temple economy from sources that are “rich in content, difficult, fragile at first glance, but then uniquely rich in detail”, as Stadler says. At the same time, they will being publication of an online platform with the edition of around 40 representative texts. Under the keyword “Digital Humanities”, ancient historians and Egyptologists will be provided with new sources that will put the knowledge about the economic life of Egyptian temples in the Roman Empire on a new footing. In fact, the researchers involved assume that the results of their investigations will force researchers to revise their understanding of the situation during this period.
Lists of accounts concerning economic management
“In this project we are concentrating on lists of accounts from the economic management of the temple of Dimê, which originated around the time from 30 BCE to the second century CE”, explains Stadler. At that time Rome had taken power in Egypt. While older research blamed the Romans for the decline of the temples in Egypt, today it is believed that Rome even provided economic stimulation in Egypt. This controversy is one of the motivations of the research project that has now been launched.
Southwest of Cairo, in the middle of the desert, near the oasis Fayum, lie the remains of the temple Dimê. The temple was dedicated to Soknopaios, who was often depicted with a crocodile’s body and a falcon’s head. Around the middle of the third century BCE the place was abandoned and never populated again, which proved to be a stroke of luck. In the dry desert, ancient documents on papyrus remained well preserved until they were accidentally rediscovered at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the text fragments were then sold without treatment by archaeologists and mixed with other finds; today they are scattered in museums and collections in Vienna and Berlin, London and Paris, as well as many other places.
Papyrus rolls several metres long
These papyri can be up to two and a half metres long. Narrowly described in long columns, the editions of the temple treasury are recorded over many years in such papyri. “There, for example, people are listed who were paid by the temple”, explains Maren Schentuleit. These are priests or scribes on the one hand, but also state officials and inspectors on the other. From such sources, a good picture of the contacts between Egyptian temples and Roman administration can be gained.
Wheat, bread, olive oil, olives – salted or marinated in water: The temple’s expenses for everyday goods are also meticulously noted on the papyri and provide information about consumer habits in Egypt around 2,000 years ago. Ideally, they enable researchers to draw conclusions about price trends over centuries, and thus also about economic change during this period. Wool, beer, wine- the latter even in different qualities: The menu of antiquity hardly seems to differ from a modern one.
A writing that is difficult to decipher
Philology is not simply a matter of “read and translate”, however, especially with the papyri from Dimê, because those fragments are written in demotic writing. “This was a handwriting used especially for everyday use. It originally derived from hieroglyphic writing, and emerges around 650 BCE”, says Stadler. The deciphering of this writing is a challenge even for experts, especially because the writers in Dimê had also developed their own writing style. As if that weren’t enough difficulties, there is also the fact that many of the ancient documents are full of holes, torn, and fragmentary, with parts of one and the same fragment kept in different collections without anyone knowing.
“Anyone who specialises in demotic texts must enjoy deciphering, and be patient, persistent, and be able to tolerate frustration (at every turn),” says Maren Schentuleit. Translating an entire column in one day already counts as a great success, remarks the Egyptologist. Of course, after years of working with this script, she has a rich set of skills at her disposal to help her decipher it. In demotic writing, for example, there is always a descriptive element at the end of the word that indicates whether it is a plant, a mineral or a type of material – helping to narrow down the search for solutions.
The joy of repetition
When trying to decipher completely unknown words, Schentuleit looks for a connection with words in the older Egyptian or later Coptic language, hoping that similarities will help her. Or, she remembers having already seen the same combination of signs in another text and can draw conclusions about the meaning in a new context. For this reason, too, the Egyptologist can come to appreciate researching accounting lists – a text genre that otherwise promises little reading pleasure. “They contain many repetitive elements and thus enable comparisons to be made across many text fragments”.
The aim is, within three years, to edit 40 texts and produce an online database. “We are doing important preliminary work for younger scholars and laying the foundation for further research projects”, explains Stadler. And, of course, the results will help to significantly improve our understanding of temples as economic centres in Egypt, their relationships with other temples, intellectual exchange within the country – and, ideally, the controversy over the influence of the Romans on these Egyptian institutions.
Dr. Martin Andreas Stadler