* Long-ago folks didn’t have Post-it notes or Smartphones. Instead, they wrote on papyrus (their surprisingly durable paper), wood, pottery shards, wax tablets, whitewashed walls.
* Their birthday invitations, doctor bills, love letters, work agreements, prayers, and to-do lists still exist. Often in hiding. And sometimes recycled in astonishing ways.
* Inside this mummified crocodile, for instance.
* Why should we care?
* Because these small jigsaw pieces of the past speak directly to us.
They reveal the hopes, fears, and realities of men and women
very much like you and me. Let’s eavesdrop.
What: This petition, addressed to an official in Kerkeosiris, 40 miles SW
of Cairo, was written in Greek by Tapentos, a female citizen in obvious distress.
Who: The language of her declaration gives the impression that Tapentos was an independent local homeowner, possibly a businesswomen, who lived alone. And had rivals. Or enemies. This is only my speculation, since the rest of the papyrus is missing.
When: the text dates to about 114 BC. It’s part of the Tebtunis Papyri collection, which has over 22,000 fragments of ancient writing.
Where found: In December 1899, Berkeley archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt started excavating a huge cemetery at the ancient Egyptian town of Tebtunis. Their goal: to find human mummies, prepared a certain way. As a rule, mummies were covered with protective layers of linen stiffened with plaster. Egyptologist Flinders Petri, however, had earlier discovered that less elegant mummies were coated with layers of papyrus instead of linen. Old papyrus, written on and discarded. From a history standpoint, this was huge. Grenfell and Hunt soon found papyrus-laden human remains at Tebtunis.
• The town also had a large temple to Sobek, the crocodile god. Near the temple ruins, the archaeologists found another large necropolis, this one jammed with mummified crocs to honor Sobek. Before long, the excavating team got fed up, wading through seemingly worthless reptile remains, trying to find human sarcophagi.
• On January 16, 1900, a breakthrough. Literally. An impatient workman kicked a croc mummy and it broke into pieces, revealing to everyone’s shock and delight that crocodiles too had gotten the papyrus papier-mache treatment. In addition, some of the larger animals (up to 14 feet long) had layers of papyrus wadded inside to plump them out.
• The workman’s find was indeed lucky in two ways. Although Hunt and Grenfell spent the rest of the digging season ripping through a thousand crocs, only 31 of that great number had been mummified using discarded papyri. And Tapentos’ mysterious story was one of them.
To learn more: The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri online (with a link to APIS the digitized collection) at http://tebtunis.berkeley.edu