Kind of random, but this item reminded me of my old stomping grounds (Berkeley, not Tebtunis).
A newly deciphered letter home dating back around 1,800 years reveals the pleas of a young Egyptian soldier named Aurelius Polion who was serving, probably as a volunteer, in a Roman legion in Europe.
“I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind.”
“I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you …” (Part of the letter hasn’t survived.)
Polion says he has written six letters to his family without response, suggesting some sort of family tensions.
“While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger,” he writes. “I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother …”
(Link to the full article)
The letter itself tells a sad and apparently timeless story of family strife, but what’s more incredible is that this papyrus was used as packing material for a crocodile mummy.
When I was a student assistant in the library at Berkeley, I was allowed to see some of the rare holdings at the Bancroft library. My librarian boss told me the great story of the discovery of the Tebtunis papyri, found in what he jokingly called “the lost city of Crocodopolis.” I reproduce it here from the library’s website, which spins the yarn better than I could:
The saga of the Tebtunis papyri commenced on 3 December 1899, when Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt descended on the remains of what soon would prove to be Tebtunis. They had been hired by George A. Reisner to excavate for the University of California with funds generously provided by Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst.
Grenfell and Hunt’s first objective was the town of Tebtunis itself. In the course of a few weeks they rummaged through the remains of the town and through the remains of a temple complex, which would turn out to be the temple of the crocodile god Soknebtunis (“Sobek, lord of Tebtunis”). In both locations they found a wealth of papyrus, allowing George Reisner to report to Mrs. Hearst on 2 January 1900, that he was “very happy to report extraordinary success on the part of Grenfell and Hunt in the Fayum,” having found “nearly as much as in any ordinary year.”
In early January 1900, Grenfell and Hunt moved to the huge necropolis in the desert south of Tebtunis. Here they sought human mummies, in particular the cartonnage covering these mummies. A few years earlier, this cartonnage had been proven to be a possible source of texts, when Sir Flinders Petrie discovered that discarded papyri were sometimes employed in its manufacture (think “papyrus mâché”), especially during the later periods. Grenfell and Hunt unearthed more than fifty mummies in whose cartonnage discarded papyri had been used.
While searching for papyrus-laden mummy heads and pectorals, Grenfell and Hunt discovered a cemetery of mummified crocodiles that appeared to border the necropolis with the human mummies. At that time crocodiles were considered to be objects without any archaeological worth whatsoever. This assessment soon changed, however, when on January 16, 1900, one of Grenfell and Hunt’s workmen, “disgusted at finding a row of crocodiles where he expected sarcophagi, broke one of them in pieces and disclosed the surprising fact that the creature was wrapped in sheets of papyrus.” After this discovery, Grenfell and Hunt devoted the remainder of the season to clearing out part of the crocodile cemetery [emphasis added]. Although they unearthed more than 1,000 of these mummified reptiles, only 31 appeared to have been mummified with the help of discarded papyri. Grenfell and Hunt’s assistant definitely had had a lucky hand.