The Tebtunis Papyri provide much and often very detailed information about the daily life in a village in Greco-Roman Egypt. They offer vivid images of all phases of human life, from birth to death, at home and in public. The challenge for the years to come is to connect this picture that has arisen from written documents with the actual artefacts that have been found at the same spot. Taken together, papyri and artefacts will provide a more threedimensional picture of live in Egypt under Greek and Roman rule.
The People of Tebtunis
The piecing together of tiny papyrus fragments is in itself a fascinating activity, but it is not the prime objective. The prime objective is to go beyond the fragments and arrive at a reconstruction of the lives and times of the people who wrote the texts. As such, the papyri are a unique addition to other sources which inform us about antiquity, classical authors, epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), and archaeology. When studied together all these sources may lead to a fairly detailed reconstruction of the society of Greco-Roman Egypt.
The Tebtunis Papyri are only one of the sources to reconstruct the live and times of the people living in the village of Tebtunis between 300 BCE and 300 CE. Other available sources include papyri from other collections that were also found in Tebtunis (most notably the collections of the Universities of Michigan, Copenhagen, and Florence), and archaeology. The same excavations that have yielded the papyrus documents have also given us a fair amount of archaeological information, ranging from insight in the Tebtunis town architecture (houses and temples), information about daily utensils used by the people.
This showcase shows some aspects of how the Tebtunis Papyri can, in combination with other sources, help reviving the ancient village of Tebtunis.
The papyri show people in all aspects of everyday life. They also give insight in the reading habits of the inhabitants of Tebtunis. The books that have been found at Tebtunis include both Greek and Egyptian blockbusters. On the Greek side, the most popular author in Tebtunis, as in the remainder of Greco-Roman Egypt, was Homer, and especially his Iliad. The manuscripts identified so far include everything from the most exquisite bookhand to a more clumsily written copy for personal use, perhaps even as a writing exercise.
Among the books on the reading table of at least certain people in Tebtunis, were also a number of Greek works one would not expect in the Egyptian countryside. Two works stand out in this light. The first is a substantial fragment of a work that had until the discovery of the Tebtunis papyri been known only in its Latin adaptation. The work concerns the Trojan war and was allegedly written by a certain Dictys from Crete, the supposed companion of the Greek warrior Idomeneus at the walls of Troy. The second is a fragment of a work from a Greek author that was considered to be lost: the Inachus, written by the Greek tragedian Sophocles (5th century BCE).
On the Egyptian side, other collections with papyri from Tebtunis (notably Copenhagen) have unvealed several copies of Egyptian literary texts like romances and mythological texts. Up to now, no scholarly attention has been given to the Egyptian part of the collection. However, a brief survey of the uncatalogued portion of the collection by a scholar who is presently publishing literary Egyptian texts from the Copenhagen collection has unvealed as much as three dozen fragments that to judge from their outward appearance, most likely are part of Egyptian narrative texts. So far, however, these texts have not yet been properly studied.