Umm el-Breigat, ancient Tebtunis, is situated in the southwest corner of the Fayum basin in Egypt. Its history covers some 3,000 years, from the early second millennium B.C. into the thirteenth century A.D. Its best documented epoch is the Graeco-Roman period, roughly from the third century BC through the third century AD.
Tebtunis' center was marked by the temple of the crocodile god Soknebtunis ("Sobek, lord of Tebtunis"). The temple enclosure itself and the ceremonial way (dromos) leading up to it can easily be recognized on an aerial photograph made of the site in the thirties.
In the course of the twentieth century, Tebtunis has been the center of considerable archaeological and, especially, papyrological activity. The number of papyri found at the site -- a number that contains to grow -- is immense. The subjects illustrated by the written material from Tebtunis vary. They include the contents of the temple library and the notary office, family archives of various village dignitaries, and much, much more. Besides texts from Tebtunis itself, the site has also yielded papyri from neighboring villages, such as Kerkeosiris and Oxyrhyncha, that were used in the mummification of both humans and crocodiles that were buried in the necropolis of Tebtunis. Research into this rich corpus of documents (and their related archaeological objects) is being done at various institutions worldwide and will significantly enrich our understanding of the administrative and socio-economic history of the entire ancient Mediterranean world.
The first excavations at Tebtunis were carried out by Grenfell and Hunt for the University of California in the winter of 1899/1900. It was during this excavation that Berkeley's Tebtunis papyri were unearthed.
In the tens and twenties of the past century, papyri from Tebtunis were offered for sale on the antiques market in Cairo, indicating that Egyptians were carrying out illegal excavations at the site. Large batches of papyri were acquired at this time by the University of Michigan and by the Carlsberg Foundation. Smaller collections of papyri from Tebtunis were purchased in this period by, for example, the University of Giessen and the University of Oslo. The Michigan batch consisted of many interesting texts connected to the notary office of Tebtunis; the Copenhagen batch comprised not only documentary texts, but also a considerable number of (demotic Egyptian) literary texts from the temple library of the temple of Soknebtunis at Tebtunis.
Regular excavations were resumed in the early thirties, when an Italian expedition led by Anti, Bagnani and Vogliano descended upon Tebtunis. This expedition was again very successful from the papyrological point of view, yielding numerous documents, and more (demotic Egyptian) literary texts from the temple library. A spectacular discovery was made in a building that was soon called the "Cantina dei Papiri"; here, besides a roll with Callimachus' Diegeseis, the excavators found hundreds of documentary papyrus texts. For more information, please see the Tebtunis-Bagnani Archives web page.
Since 1989 excavations have been conducted at Tebtunis by a joint expedition of the Papyrological Institute of the State University of Milan and the Institut Francais d'Archeologie Orientale in Cairo. These excavations have been quite successful.
Life on the fringe of the desert
The papyrus documents that were found in Tebtunis itself illustrate many aspects of daily life in the village (and its environs) during the first three centuries of our era. They also introduce some of its inhabitants to world history.
What should we think of the four tax collectors at Tebtunis who decided that it was more profitable to join forces and distribute their tasks among them? Their names were Herakles, Athenodoros, Heron, and Zoilos, and in November of 99 AD, they reached the following agreement:
Herakles and Athenodoros and Heron and Zoilos, all four collectors of the poll-tax at the village of Tebtunis, agree voluntarily and of our own free will that we have made a division for the fifteenth of the month Hathyr, of which the receipts are credited to Phaophi, of the third year of Trajanus Caesar the Lord for the present third year only of Imperator Caesar Nerva Trajanus Augustus Germanicus, and that Athenodoros and Herakles have been allotted the inhabitants and settlers in the village, while Heron and Zoilos have for their part been allotted all the inhabitants and settlers (of Tebtunis) at other villages or in the metropolis, on condition that those who have been allotted the external district shall pay each month 1100 drachmas of silver, while those who have been allotted the village shall make up the monthly balance of the quota for the poll-tax, being also responsible for the salary of the sword-bearer. If any of us four violates any of the aforesaid provisions, he shall pay to the party abiding by them 500 drachmas and to the Treasury an equal sum. This bond shall be valid, as if it had been publicly registered. The coming extra levy of the present third year shall be demanded by them from the classes of persons which they have severally been allotted. The third year of Imperator Caesar Nerva Trajanus Augustus Germanicus [Hathyr ..].
Many texts are concerned with agricultural matters: land leases, receipts for payment of rent and land taxes and so on.
Two interesting texts are P. Tebt. 378 and 588, duplicate copies of a lease of land, one (378) signed by the lessee, the other by the lessors. The text is dated to 18 October 265 A.D., right before the Egyptian sowing season which started in November. The lease was drawn up in the form of a hypomnema in which one party expresses his or her wish (boulomai) to enter into an agreement with the other party. In this case, Aurelius Demetrios expressed his wish to rent part of a plot of land that belongs to Aurelius Sarapammon and his sister Aurelia Heraklia. The latter is also acting as curatrix for Sarapammon who is styled as "past his prime" (parelix), that is: being old and of unsound mind.
The copy written and signed by the lessee reads as follows:
To Aurelius Sarapammon, who is past his prime, and Aurelia Heraklia acting without a guardian, both children of Heron, from [...]is, Sarapammon having as curatrix his sister the aforesaid Heraklia, from Aurelius Demetrius, however he is styled. I wish to lease from you the half share owned by you at the village of Theogonis of 9 corn-bearing arouras in one parcel, which formerly were leased to Heron, for a period of four years dating from the sowing of the present thirteenth year at the annual rent for the half share of the 9 arouras, with no advance of seed-corn, of 12 artabas of wheat. And I have received forthwith from you, for the restoration of the operations upon the land which has been delivered by Heron in a dry condition, the 300 drachmas of silver which you have received from him for the restoration of the land, in order that I may deliver it in clean condition; and it shall not be lawful for me to renounce the lease before the end of the period on any account, but I will of necessity perform all the annual operations, the making of dykes, irrigating, ploughing, hoeing, banking up of canals and conduits, building of insets, weeding, gathering stalks, and all else that is fitting, at my own expense in the proper seasons, without causing any injury, all the State dues being paid by you the landlords. The annual rent I will pay in the month Pauni at the threshing- floor measured by the 4-choinix measure of the ceremonial entrance way (of the temple); and at the end of the period I will deliver up the land free from rushes, reeds, coarse grass, and dirt of all kinds. If I fail to deliver it, I will pay the 300 drachmas which I have received, you having no power to transfer the lease or to work the land yourselves during the aforesaid period; and in answer to the formal question I have given my consent. I, Aurelius Demetrios, have leased the arouras on the condition that I will restore and return them, and I have received the three hundred drachmas for them, and in answer to the formal question, I have given my consent. I, Aurelius Arsinoos have written for him, because he is illiterate. In the 13th year of our Lord Gallienus Augustus, Phaophi 21.
The duplicate was signed by the lessors:
We, Aurelius Sarapammon and Aurelia Heraklia have rented out (the land) as above written. I, Aurelius Ploutammon have written for her because she is illiterate.
Other texts illustrate various aspects of taxation. Thus the Tebtunis papyri include quite a number of receipts for the payments of various taxes, such as the poll tax (laographia); P. Tebt. 617, of 11 May 172 AD (transl. John Shelton, ZPE 6, 1970, p. 86):
Year 12 of Aurelius Antoninus Caesar the lord Armeniacus Medicus Parthicus Germanicus Maximus, Pachon 16th, for the account of Pharmouthi. Paid by Aretion bastard son of Thermouth( ), for poll tax of year eleven for the Tameion quarter, twenty drachmas, total 20, plus ten obols for supplementary fees.