Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.37

S. P. Vleeming, Demotic and Greek-Demotic Mummy Labels and Other Short Texts Gathered from Many Publications (Short Texts II 278-1200) (2 vols.). Studia demotica, 9 (A-B).   Leuven; Paris; Walpole, MA:  Peeters, 2011.  Pp. xxxvi, 1127; 38 p. of plates.  ISBN 9789042925892.  € 25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Damien Agut-Labordère, CNRS ArScAn (

In continuation of his work on the short demotic texts and after Some Coins of Artaxerxes and other Short Demotic Texts devoted to small inscriptions carved on metal and stone, S. P. Vleeming brings together over a thousand inscriptions linked to Egyptian funeral practices. This impressive work is divided in two volumes. A large majority of the texts collected in volume A are inscribed on mummy labels (Chapter I-V) or mummy linen (Chapter VI) but also on cases, coffin, chests and masks (Chapter VII). Funerary inscriptions connected with the mummified fauna (Chapter VIII: 29 documents) and more generally written on papyrus and ostraca (Chapter IX) are also included, plus a small group 22 funeral texts which do not belong to any of these categories. The size of volume B (388 pages), devoted to concordances, appendices and indexes, indicates the richness of volume A. Demotic and Greek-Demotic mummy labels is extraordinarily useful (“the only qualification this volume strives after”) providing easy access to documents scattered across hundreds of publications. Mummy labels make up the bulk of the corpus. Those small wooden tags were put around the necks of mummies during the Graeco-Roman period (the New Kingdom labels were understandably excluded) and were used to identify the corpses of the deceased indiscriminately piled in the necropolis.

Studied in Spiegelberg’s and Möller’s onomastic monographs, the corpus of demotic mummy labels was increased by Pestman and Quaegebeur in Pap.Lugd.Bat. 19.1 It was then enriched by the M. Chauveau’s masterpiece on the labels of the Louvre and soon will be increased by the forthcoming book of C. Arlt based on the British Museum’s labels.2 Vleeming’s book is a progress report, containing hundreds of already published or partially published labels now thoroughly commented on. Moreover, it will also be a definitive scientific tool for the study of this large corpus, comprehensively addressing problems of chronology, paleography, anthroponomy, toponymy, and more. In addition, some one hundred new documents mainly coming from Oxford, London and Warsaw are added to the corpus (conveniently listed on pp. 746-747). For some fifty of these only the Greek side has been published previously. (Here, only the demotic sides of the labels are presented.)

The 910 mummy labels are divided into 5 chapters based on the origins of the documents: Thebes (chapter I), Dendera (II) and the Panopolite Region (IV). Chapter III concerns the labels of various origins: mainly, Philae and the Hermonthite, Antaeopolite and Herakleopolite nomes. Chapter V is devoted to documents of unknown origin. Sections 5-8 of the Appendix I (Volume A) provide a comprehensive study of the formulas used in the labels, reporting the spatial, religious and temporal variations in the Panopolite labels. The spatial variation is peculiarly interesting and provides a useful complement to Chauveau’s recent article on the scribal hands of the Panopolite region.3 Selected paleographical tables concerning mainly the Panopolite labels are shown in the Appendix II. After the work of Chauveau, who identified around forty different hands, the author has added 26 new scribes. Situating the texts, and the scribes, in time is quite difficult because of the small number of labels bearing a precise date. Those which are studied here run from the late first century A.D. until the last decades of the 3rd century. One isolated text belongs to the year 19 of Diocletian (A.D. 302, no. 883). Most of the hands that the author can place are dated to the third century. We have to admire the thorough paleographical commentary (pp. 812-884): 47 demotic signs or groups of signs are presented and discussed in detail, providing a decisive step in the analysis of Demotic writing during the Roman period. Appendix V of volume B contains rich onomastic discussions: dating the name elements Pshen- and Tshen- of the Panopolitan mummy labels and the incongruity between the Demotic and Greek parts of the labels.

The demotic funerary texts on linen constitute a narrower corpus of 104 texts written on shrouds and bands of textiles. The corpus gathered in the book shows clearly that we have to distinguish two kinds of texts. The first group concerns the identity of the deceased and is comparable with the labels. The second contains much longer texts duplicating the formula known as the “Demotic Letter for Breathing” which was traditionally written on coffins or funerary papyri. In a few cases, the name of the mummy is not even mentioned. The inscriptions on mummy cases, coffins, chests and sarcophagi are even more heterogeneous (61 documents). The last set of documents concerns the mummified fauna (40 documents). Written on a coffin, sarcophagus or pot containing snake, ibis and various animal bodies, these texts provide information on well attested animal cults or more unclear practices.4 A last group of documents (40 texts) comprises various papyri and ostraka bearing short funerary texts. As Spiegelberg and Quaegebeur have shown,5 a short group of brief funerary papyri (nos. 1144-1157) inspired some of the formulae used in the labels. These texts functioned as letters of recommendation to the gods of the divine tribunal.

Each notice is conveniently presented and provides museographical and material information and an exhaustive bibliography. One of the major strengths of this work lies in the high quality of the facsimiles, which are based on the original texts and not on the photographs given in former editions.6 The notices are numbered in a continuous series from Some Coins of Artaxerxes which ended at no. 277; thus, Demotic and Greek-Demotic mummy labels begins at no. 278.

The monumental work of gathering, correcting and editing by S. Vleeming offers demoticists comprehensive access to a large and scattered corpus with hitherto sparse documentation. Beyond this, it will allow scholars to integrate the mummy labels in historical analysis of Roman Egypt, opening the way to all sorts of enquiries based on texts emanating from people of such modest condition as bee-keeper (no. 631.1), baker (no. 424.2), smith (no. 288.2) or sack carrier (no. 437.2) whose lives remain very poorly documented. As some of the labels mention also the age of death, they can add to demographic analysis. For the demoticist as for the historian of Roman Egypt, the second volume of the Short Texts is not only useful but also essential.


1.   W. Spiegelberg, Aegyptische und griechische eigennamen aus mumienetiketten der römischen kaiserzeit, Lepzig, 1908; G. Möller, Mumienschilder, Demotische Texte aus den Königlichen Museum zu Berlin. Erster Band, Leipzig, 1913; E. Boswinkel, P. W. Pestman, Textes grecs, démotiques et bilingues (Papyrologica Lugduno- Batava 19), Leiden 1978.
2.   M. Chauveau, Les Etiquettes de momies démotiques et bilingues du Musée du Louvre, unpub. Diss., Paris, 1987; C. Arldt, Deine Seele Möge Leben für Immer und Ewig. Die demotische und demotische-Griechische Mumientäfelchen des British Museum (Stud. Dem. IX), Leuven, in preparation.
3.   M. Chauveau, « Rive droite, rive gauche. Le nome panopolite aux IIe et IIIe siècles de notre ère » dans A. Egberts, B. P. Muhs, J. Van der Vliet (éds), Perspectives on Panopolis (Pap. Lugd. Bat. 31), Brill, Leyden-Boston-Cologne, 2002, p. 45-54.
4.   See no. 1107 a rectangular coffin stored in Lyon’s Musée des Beaux Arts showing a figure of dwarf with a mysterious dedication.
5.   J. Quaegebeur, « P. Brux. Dem. E. 8258. Une lettre de Recommandation pour l’au-delà » in S. Israelit-Groll (ed.), Studies in Egyptology. Presented to Miriam Lichtheim, Vol. 2, 1990, p. 776-795, pl.1-2.
6.   They are made the same size as the original, which in some cases makes decipherment difficult.

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