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About the Tebtunis Collection

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About the Tebtunis Papyri

The Tebtunis Papyri were excavated at the dawn of the twentieth century (winter 1899/1900 CE) at the site of the ancient Graeco-Roman city of Tebtunis, located in the Fayum basin of Egypt. The expedition to Tebtunis, which was led by the British papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, was financed for the University of California by Phoebe Apperson Hearst.

Thus the collection is now held by The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.  It is the largest collection of papyrus texts in the Americas. The collection has never been counted and inventoried completely, but the number of fragments contained in it exceeds 26,000.

About the Town of Tebtunis

Ancient Tebtunis, now known as Umm el-Breigat, is situated in the southwest corner of the Fayum basin in Egypt. Its history covers some 3,000 years, from the early second millennium BCE into the thirteenth century CE.  Its best documented epoch is the Graeco-Roman period, roughly spanning the third century BCE through the third century CE.

Sobek, an ancient Egyptian crocodile god with complex and fluid characteristics, was important throughout the Fayum.  Tebtunis had an important temple to Sobek marking the center of town.  There they called their reptilian deity “Soknebtunis,” meaning "Sobek, lord of Tebtunis."

The importance of Soknebtunis in Tebtunis explains why the first excavations there—carried out by Grenfell and Hunt for the University of California in the winter of 1899/1900—unearthed many papyri from both human and crocodile mummies buried in the town’s necropolis.   Some of these papyri originated in neighboring villages, such as Kerkeosiris and Oxyrhyncha, and then were used in the mummification process in Tebtunis.  

Other papyri from the excavation were found in the temple and in the surrounding town, rather than in mummy cartonnage.  The Bancroft Library holds papyri texts from the temple’s library and notary office, family archives of various village dignitaries, and much more.  Research into this rich corpus of documents (and related archaeological objects) has been undertaken at various institutions worldwide and continues to enrich our understanding of the administrative and socio-economic history of the entire ancient Mediterranean world.

 

Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt in Tebtunis 1899-1900

Photo: Bernard P. Grenfell (right) and Arthur S. Hunt in Tebtunis,

1899/1900; courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

 

Timeline of Twentieth-Century Excavations in Tebtunis

1899/1900 CE (winter): Grenfell and Hunt excavate the Tebtunis Papyri for University of California, Berkeley.

circa 1910 - 1930 CE:  Papyri from Tebtunis were offered for sale on the antiquities market in Cairo, indicating that Egyptians were carrying out illegal excavations at the site. The University of Michigan acquired large batches of papyri connected with the notary office of Tebtunis.  The Carlsberg Foundation in Copenhagen acquired a considerable number of demotic Egyptian literary texts from the library of the temple of Soknebtunis at Tebtunis. The University of Giessen and the University of Oslo also purchased papyri from similar sources.

1930s CE:  An Italian expedition led by Anti, Bagnani, and Vogliano yielded more demotic Egyptian literary texts from the temple library. Their team made a spectacular discovery in a building that was soon called the "Cantina dei Papiri"; here, besides a roll with an ancient scholarly commentary on the poems of Callimachus (Diegeseis), the excavators found hundreds of documentary papyrus texts.

1989 CE - present:  Excavations have been resumed at Tebtunis by a joint expedition of the Papyrological Institute of the State University of Milan and the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale in Cairo.