The Hearst Egyptian Expedition

From 1899 to 1905 Phoebe Hearst financed various archaeological expeditions to Egypt for the University of California. The director of these expeditions was the American egyptologist George Reisner, who with great succes excavated various sites in Egypt. A fair amount of the various artifacts that were found during these excavations was granted to Reisner to be brought back with him to California and to be given to Phoebe Hearst. After her death, this collection Egyptian antiquities was donated to the now Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley.

As is apparent from the letter on display, already during the first year of its existence, the Hearst Egyptian Expedition encountered an offer it could not refuse.


The Fayum

Tebtunis was situated in the south-west corner of the Fayum. The Fayum is an oasis, surrounded by hills in the desert south-west of Memphis. The bottom of this oasis slopes from 26 meters in the east to 44 meters below sea level at Lake Moeris in the north-west.

The Fayum receives water through the Bahr Yusuf, a branch of the Nile river. By building sluices and damms the Egyptians had already regulated the watersupply in Pharaonic times, but it was Ptolemy II Philadelphos (reigned 285-246 BCE) who actually undertook the development of the whole region on a larger scale. He dedicated the region to his sister, queen Arsinoe, whose name was given to the entire nome (Arsinoite nome). Marshland was reclaimed and dry land was irrigated. The development of new land was partially achieved by granting parcels of land in "fief" to military colonists (cleruchs).

In the course of the third century CE some of this reclaimed land had to be given up because it became silted or covered with sand; several border towns were depopulated in the third and the fourth century CE. Other towns would move their buildings away from the desert. These deserted towns and parts of towns would become major sources for papyri and other artefacts when the search for papyri started at the end of the 19th century.

One of these towns was Tebtunis, which was not deserted in the third and fourth centuries CE (on the contrary, Tebtunis was still a center of importance in the Byzantine and Arab periods), but the center of which was moved away from the desert, leaving the old center of Greco-Roman times (with the temple of the crocodilegod Soknebtunis) to the desert. It was only in the 13th century that Tebtunis became a dead town, a small half-square kilometre hill called kom Umm el-Breigat being the only visible remnant of its former glory. It was this kom, that Grenfell and Hunt picked for their 1899/1900 excavation for the University of California.

The Tebtunis Papyri

The papyri found during the excavations, which were indeed, as Reisner had promised Mrs. Hearst, an "abundant mass" took up most, if not all, of the scholarly attention in the century that followed. Between 1902 and 1938, a total of 1094 texts (less than 5% of the total number of fragments) were published either in full, with translation and commentary, or briefly described. Grenfell and Hunt themselves played a major part in the publication of the papyri, which were, for this reason, retained in Oxford before being transferred to Berkeley. Surprisingly, the equally abundant mass of artefacts that was found during the same excavation, would remain untouched for the rest of the century.


Sacred Crocodiles

The principal deity that was worshipped in Tebtunis was the crocodile god Soknebtunis ("Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis"). As may be expected, documents written by and addressed to the priests of this god are fairly frequent among the papyri that were found at Tebtunis. The actual result of some of the activities of the priests of Soknebtunis were also unearthed: crocodile mummies. As with many other sacred animals of Ancient Egypt, crocodiles were mummified after their death. The more elaborate specimens, as shown here, were wrapped in linen; at the head, some plaster was applied on top of which a crocodile face was painted.

Thousands of these mummified crocodiles, ranging in size from mummified eggs to fully grown specimens, were found in the sands of Tebtunis. A handful of these now remain; the remainder was all destroyed by Grenfell and Hunt in their search for papyri, which appeared to have been recycled and used in the mummification of a small percentage of these creatures. Long rolls of papyrus, mostly from official archives (an example is shown), were wrapped around the animals, whereas smaller sheets were stuffed in the mouth and other cavities.