Today the Queensland Museum opens its latest exhibition, Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives in conjunction with the British Museum.
Like most children who dreamed of being an archaeologist when she grew up, I spent years looking at books devoted to Egyptology, and the vast majority I came across focussed on the Pharaonic period. When I became an ancient historian, my interest in Egypt broadened to look at its culture not just from the Old to New Kingdoms, but to also find interest in the pre-dynastic and later periods of its history.
Given that I now look at Roman history more than other periods, I find the cultural milieu of Graeco-Roman social practices and Egyptian practices of particular fascination. It is because of this that I am excited that this exhibition is covering a period which includes the Roman era. The Queensland Museum's webpage states:
"Discover how they were embalmed and what life along the Nile valley was like. Explore visualisations based on the CT scans of the mummies, as well as ancient texts, coffins, masks and funerary objects to unravel their mysteries."
Well, one of my favourite papyri which dates to a period a little later than the lifetime of the latest individual, provides an interesting insight into the nature of mummification around 267-74 CE. It reads thus:
"Melas. . . to Sarapion and Silvanus . . . greeting. I have sent you by the grave-digger the body of your brother Phibion and have paid him the fee for transporting the body, being 340 drachmae of the old coinage.1 And I am much surprised that you departed for no good reason without taking the body of your brother, but collected all that he possessed and so departed. And from this I see that you did not come up for the sake of the dead, but for the sake of his effects. Now take care to have ready the sum spent. The expenses are: cost of preservatives 60 old drachmas; cost of wine on the first day, 2 choes 32 old dr.; for expenditure on loaves and relishes 16 dr.; to the grave-digger for the desert journey, besides the above-mentioned fee, 1 chous of wine 20 dr., 2 choes of oil 12 dr., 1 artaba of barley 20 dr.; cost of linen 20 dr.; and fee as aforesaid of 340 dr.; total on reckoning the whole expenditure five hundred and twenty drachmas of the old coinage, total 520 dr. You will therefore make every effort to serve the person who will bring the body by providing loaves and wine and oil and whatever you can, in order that he may testify to me. Do nothing. . . I pray for your health."1
I love everything about this papyrus! I love how the writer who seems to be the embalmer admonished the recipients for failing their deceased brother, but I also adore the itemised account for the expense of embalming Phibion. While the latest research and scientific imaging which the exhibit will showcase can tell us a lot about the process, this papyrus letter can also tell us much, especially with a little research.
This papyri was found at Kysis within the Great Oasis in the Western Desert, but was written at a different Great Oasis settlement, El-Kharga. The distance between Kysis and El-Kharga is approximately 120 kilometres, and the majority of the distance appears to have been through desert. See the map to get an idea of where these towns were.
The "gravedigger" (νεκροταφος) was involved in rituals associated with death, so his actions as the transporter of Phibion would in no way desecrate his remains. The "old coinage" to which Melas referred could be coinage used in Egypt prior to the reforms of Diocletian, but another papyrus which dates to 260 CE states that banks had to accept all coins bar those absolutely spurious or counterfeit.2 There is not way to tell precisely how old "old coinage" was, but it seems reasonable that older coins weighed more, and therefore were worth more. To get a sense of just how much this bill was, it should be noted that the daily pay rate for a labourer in Egypt in 258/9 CE was just drachmas per day, so this expense was significant, at least for Egypt's lowest classes.
Transporting bodies was not unknown in antiquity. The sarcophagus of one Publius Aelius C--illus (maybe Camillus?), who appears to have lived in the second century CE, was found in Ankara, but the sarcophagus bears an inscription that says he was transported there from Alexandria.
The "preservative" is actually φαρμακα in Greek. This word can also mean poison, drug, or spell. Embalming methods in the Roman period were different to those of the Pharaonic period, and chemical testing has been done on mummies, including some from the Great Oasis area which date somewhere between 30 and 400 CE. While some mummies have been excavated at Kysis, all those which have had testing performed on them have come from a more easterly site. Despite the geographical distances, the techniques used in the Great Oasis area are comparable to those used along the Nile.
The majority of embalming materials at this time were oil based, with varying quantities of resin, bitumen, and sometimes beeswax. The oil is plant based, and if it is like the resin, is likely pine or cedar derived. It is impossible to differentiate chemically between these types. Egypt has no resinous plants, so the oils and resins were all imported, and researchers merely state that large amounts were used, without determining how much that might be in real terms. We know that these were applied to both the inside and the outside of the body, and that resin was applied hot, which would have added to the price.
The bitumen which has been found on Roman era mummies has been in small amounts, and chemical analyses indicate that four of the mummies tested had bitumen sourced from the Dead Sea region used in their treatment and another two bitumen from elsewhere, likely the Red Sea Egyptian coast. The presence of these fossil hydrocarbons has skewed the Carbon 14 dating which was attempted.
It should be noted that natron was not used in the mummification process in the Roman period.
I believe that Melas is the embalmer because of his separation of the cost of the preservative from that of the linen, rather than just giving a total cost for embalming. The letter seems to make a point of being an itemised account, but given that we no that the embalming preservatives were made from various materials, it poses the question of how this material was brought into the Great Oasis region, or Egypt generally. Was it bought 'ready made' or did each embalmer use his own 'proprietary blend'? I think in the case of the Melas he was using a ready mix owing to his itemised account, but given that the majority of the ingredients used would have been imported, I wonder whether it was being manufactured outside of Egypt. Unfortunately there is no evidence to say one way or another as far as I am aware. In addition, I haven't been able to find any near contemporary evidence regarding the prices of these materials.
Like the embalming preservatives, we do not know how much linen was used. One study I found which did not define the period to which it was referring calculated that 375m2 was used in mummification. The cheapest linen, described as third quality linen, cost 700-800 denarii per "web" under the Diocletian Price Edict (the 301 CE edict which stated what the maximum price of standard goods could be). We do not know precisely how big a "web" was, but it is thought that the largest Roman looms could weave cloth 2 metres in width. Twenty drachmas seems a great price, and I do personally think that, given the tone of this letter, Melas might have inflated his prices, he might have used "cast-off" linen; material which had previously been used as bedding or garments, and were now fairly worn. It is known that linen of this type was used in mummification.
The use of wine and food within the embalming process I think is fascinating. This gives a hint into the use of consumables likely as a part of the rituals which accompanied the preservation of the body. Melas states that 2 choes of wine was used on the first day. Exactly how much wine this was can be given as between 2.88 and 3.24 litres. In all likelihood, more than 6L of wine was used on the first day, billed at 32 old drachmas. Under the Diocletian Price Edict, 6L of cheapest wine could not be charged at more than 88 denarii, so it seams a very reasonable price, but it is extremely difficult to compare Egyptian drachmas to denarii owing to the differences in weight, the comparable silver content, and issues of hyperinflation during the third century. When you compare this to the cost of the wine provided to the gravedigger, it appears that this wine was not something the embalmer would have been consuming as he worked, but instead used in either for ritual fearing or sacrificed in funerary rites.
The "loaves and relishes" were likely used in the same way as the wine, but the "relishes" could also have referred to "little morsels and victims sacrificed beforehand", which would also fit well with this idea of ritual acts accompanying the embalming.
The costs associated with the transportation are also interesting. In addition to the wine which at 20 drachmas, he was also to be provided with oil. We know from another papyrus that 1 cotyla of oil cost 4 drachmas, and each chous was made of 12 cotylae, so elsewhere in Egypt 10-20 years previous to this, the same amount of oil would have cost 96 drachmas; therefore I think that either old drachmas were worth plenty more than the current coinage, or this was an incredibly reasonable price. The price of an artaba of wheat in 255 CE was 16 drachmas, and wheat was and still is more expensive than barley, so Melas might have inflated this price, but the price of barley in the Diocletian Price Edict was a great deal more again.
The largest expense was the transportation of Phibion is the greatest expense. The 320 drachmas for the 120km trip breaks down to 2.666 per kilometre, but this is not the measure we should use. One Roman mile equals approx. 1,480m, so the distance travelled was around 81 Roman miles, and thus cost approx 3.95 drachmas per mile. According to the Diocletian Price Edict, the most that was meant to be charged for a donkey load was 4 denarii per mile, but again, it is difficult to compare drachmas to denarii.
Given the tone of this letter, I like to think Melas jacked up his prices to punish Phibion's brothers for their behaviour. He does not seem to do so through his actual prices, but I wonder whether the demand for "old coinage" was a way to do so. While I have named Phibion and Melas throughout this blog, I was tempted to leave out Phibion's brothers names, as remembering the names of the Egyptian dead is a way to keep them alive in the afterlife according to ancient Egyptian religion, and I must admit that I agree with Melas' attitude towards them. I think his "I pray for your health" sign off is one of the most passive aggressive phrases I've ever read from antiquity, and it delights me.
If you live in Brisbane, or find yourself visiting here between 16 March and the 26 August, do go see the exhibition. I have not yet been myself, but have it on excellent authority it is a wonderful as well as respectful exhibition, which endeavours to teach us how science is allowing us to better understand ancient Egyptian mummies of a variety ages. And do say the names of these people; I think it is a wonderful thing we can do for them.
1 157 "From Melas To Sarapion And Silvanus" (P. Grenf. ii. 77) in Select Papyri, Volume I: Private Documents. Loeb Classical Library 266. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932, page 373.
2 P. Oxy. 1141 and Bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs, p. 92.
Other bibliographic information.
Aufderheide, Cartmell, Zlonis, & Sheldrick, 2004. "Mummification Practices at Kellis Site in Egypt's Dakhleh Oasis", JSSEA 31, pp. 63-76.
Bennett, 2010. “Mummies for Export? The Repatriation of a Corpse from Alexandria to Ancyra in the Roman Imperial Period.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 96, pp. 216–219.
Bowman, 1996. Egypt After the Pharoahs, 332 BC-Ad 642.
Gessler-Löhr, 2013. "Mummies and Mummification" in Riggs, The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt.
Buckley & Evershed, 2001. "Organic chemistry of embalming agents in Pharaonic and
Graeco-Roman mummies", Nature, 25 October 2001, pp. 837-41.
Malek, 1980. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. This is where the map is from.
Maurer, Möhring, & Rullkötter, 2002. "Plant Lipids and Fossil Hydrocarbons in Embalming Materialof Roman Period Mummies from the Dakhleh Oasis, Western Desert, Egypt", Journal of Archaeological Science, 29, 751–762.
Mayerson' 2004."Pitch (πίσσα) for Egyptian Winejars an Imported Commodity", Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 147, pp. 201-204.
West, 1916. "The Cost of Living in Roman Egypt" Classical Philology, Vol. 11, pp. 293-314