Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.07

Erja Salmenkivi, Cartonnage Papyri in Context. New Ptolemaic Documents from Abu Sir al-Malaq. Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum 119.   Helsinki:  Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 2002.  Pp. 182; pls. 20.  ISBN 951-653-319-1.  

Reviewed by J.G. Manning, Stanford University
Word count: 1107 words

This excellent study brings to light twenty new Ptolemaic documents housed in Berlin that have been extracted from mummy cartonnage, the kind of papier maché used in the mummification of animals as well as humans from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus down to the first century CE that has proved so valuable as a means of preserving ancient texts written on papyrus. Texts extracted from cartonnage do present their scientific problems, as S. ably demonstrates in the opening pages of this very enjoyable volume. The documents here treated are related to those in BGU 18.1, both deriving from the large necropolis at Abu Sir al-Malaq (ancient Bousiris, in the Herakleopolite nome), a site well known to Egyptian archaeologists since the work of Flinders Petrie in the late nineteenth century. One of the more intriguing aspects of the Greek papyri that have been found in the necropolis is that some of them, including the recently famous "Cleopatra papyrus" (= P. Bingen 45), are connected to Alexandria. Just how documents originating from the highest circles of Alexandria ended up in a necropolis up country remains something of a mystery, and Salmenkivi provides an excellent summary at the beginning of the volume analyzing the history of excavation at the site and of the papyri, including the literary texts, that derive from it.

Now to the texts themselves. All of these papyri are from the same cartonnage, and derive from two archives of royal scribes (basilikoi grammateis) of the Herakleopolite nome dating to the first half of the first century BCE, and thus probably written in the nome capital, Herakleopolis Magna, itself. The majority of texts concern payment orders (some of them fragmentary) and related texts concerning tax-grain shipments to the royal granary at Alexandria or delivery of seed to the royal farmers. But there are other treasures here too. The first two texts concern the payment of soldiers, in the second text specified as "soldiers (machimoi) of the dioiketes," (line 6) a hitherto unattested phrase. Since the phrase does suggest here rather specific duties of these men, perhaps given an assignment of revenue enforcement, the author's translation "soldiers of the government," is, perhaps, too vague.

The third text concerns the payment of seed to "royal farmers" who farmed land on behalf of royal revenue, and who are further specified as being also in charge of the "Queen's revenue", perhaps a separate category of royal revenue related to Kleopatra III (see also texts 15 and 20). Salmenkivi speculates (p. 59) that this specific revenue stream attached to the queen is related to political reforms associated with the death of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II. The eighth text is an order of payment of salaries to priests of an unknown temple, the so-called syntaxis. The exact interpretation of this subvention of priests is still debated (was it an ancient phenomenon or not, among other questions), and gets into the larger issue of the degree of dependence of temples on the Ptolemaic state. There is no space here to engage in this debate other than to say that a proper understanding of the relationship between the rulers and the Egyptian temples must take into account both the date and the origin of the information on this subvention, since it is likely that relationships between the Ptolemies and the priesthoods were not uniform, although over time they became more so. We need not assume that payments to priests substituted for temple control of sacred land. Once again any "separation" of the state from Egyptian temples is artificial, as it is for ancient Egypt. The temples were firmly encapsulated (even more so by the rebuilding of the temples in the Thebaid) within the Ptolemaic state.

Important observations are made at the beginning of the study about archiving methods of the royal scribes, suggested by the annotations in the margins. These administrative dockets are valuable in understanding scribal procedure at the nome level and their connection to the capital. Whether the "highly developed controlling system" (p. 55) of the Ptolemaic bureaucracy shown here, well known of course from other material, reveals anything other than the structure of the system (as opposed to the oft-supposed "efficiency" of the system, cf. p. 117) remains to my mind dubious. Large bureaucratic structures were hardly efficient in the economic sense of that term. Any presumed absolute efficiency of the Ptolemaic bureaucracy is belied by the rent-seeking behavior of local scribes, for example, and the well-documented time delays in communication, suggested here in text 1. If we mean relative efficiency of the Ptolemaic system, then efficient relative to what exactly?

The value of these papyri lies in the insights we are given to an important area of Egypt which lies outside of the Fayyum and well past the third century BCE, a place and a time which has received much attention in past studies of the Ptolemaic economy and its bureaucracy. Dynamic models of the Ptolemaic state and its development have been a desideratum for some time, and the comparisons between the Fayyum and other areas of Egypt, including the Thebaid, and between the third and the first centuries BCE are now made easier by publications of new material, both Demotic Egyptian and Greek.

A valuable appendix listing the inventory numbers of cartonnage texts from Abu Sir al-Malaq and Indices conclude the study. The photographs are serviceable, although they are photographed at several different scales. There is much that is good in this book, and the author's insights are especially welcome with regard to the mechanisms of the Ptolemaic bureaucracy. The papyri are well edited, and are vitally important to understanding the Ptolemaic state in its supposed decline. But, as some of these texts remind us, the structure of the Ptolemaic bureaucracy was one thing, paying officials, collecting taxes and maintaining land under cultivation was altogether a different issue.

Texts from the necropolis of Abu Sir al-Malaq form one of the most important corpora of papyri, and they will provide much work for those who wish to reconstruct ancient dossiers and archives, and indeed for socio-economic and legal historians as well. I particularly recommend to a wide readership the author's discussion of the relationship of cartonnage finds to place of origin of ancient texts. Many recently purchased documents that have surfaced in several European and American connections, while probably not all from Abu Sir (cf. p. 51, n. 106), signal, as Salmenkivi's own work also signals, the continuing importance, and indeed the promise of papyrology to other disciplines in ancient history. The "Century of Papyrology" (Peter Van Minnen, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 39 (1993): 5-18) is not yet ended.

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:35, Friday, 03 April 2009