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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Daily Life

 

The Tebtunis Papyri provide much and often very detailed information about 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. One challenge for the years to come is to connect the picture that has arisen from written documents with the artefacts that have been found at the site. When studied together, papyri and artefacts can provide unprecedented access and insight into life in the ancient Mediterranean.

 

The People of Tebtunis

The piecing together of tiny papyrus fragments is in itself a fascinating activity, but it is not the primary objective. The primary objective is to go beyond the fragments to arrive at a reconstruction of the lives and times of the people who wrote the texts. The papyri are a unique part of the corpus of sources concerning antiquity (which also includes classical authors, inscriptions, and archaeological material). When studied in concert, these sources can lead to a fairly detailed reconstruction of the society of Greco-Roman Egypt.

The Tebtunis Papyri are only one of the sources from which we can 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 excavations that yielded the papyrus documents have also given us a fair amount of archaeological data, which informs us about matters like Tebtunis town architecture (houses and temples) and the daily utensils used by the people.

 

Literature

The papyri show people in all aspects of everyday life. They also provide insight into 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 rest 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 a writing exercise.

Among the books on the reading tables of at least certain people in Tebtunis were also a number of Greek works one would not expect in the Egyptian countryside. Two works particularly stand out. The first is a substantial fragment of a work that had been known only in its Latin adaptation until the discovery of the Tebtunis papyri. The work concerns the Trojan War and was allegedly written by a certain Dictys of 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) include copies of Egyptian literary texts like romances and mythological texts. Up to now, little scholarly attention has been given to the Egyptian part of the Berkeley collection. A brief survey of the uncatalogued portion of the collection by a scholar who is presently publishing literary Egyptian texts from the Copenhagen collection, however, has revealed as many as three dozen fragments that most likely are parts of Egyptian narrative texts. To date, these texts have not been properly studied.