The next item in our CREWS display series takes us back to Roman Egypt, where the co-existence of different languages had important ramifications for writing.
This is mummy label, and hails from between the first century BC and the early third century AD. It is a bilingual, with Greek on one side, and Egyptian Demotic on the other.
Mummy labels were important items as they enabled bodies to be transported between the person’s home and the cemetery where they would be laid to rest, or, if they died away from home, back to their home town. They could be made of either wood or stone, and provided key information about the individual such as name, age and home town.
The Greek text of this one reads:
αρυωτου μητρο[σ] σενα
aruotou metro[s] sena-
`The elder Tatriphis daughter of Aryotes and of Senaryotis her mother’
If the names of Tatriphis and her parents do not sound very Greek to you, you would be right – these are Egyptian names.
Notice also, in passing, the lunate sigma at the end of the first word (τατριφισ), that we observed in my last post about the pistachio jar.
The other side of the mummy label, written in Egyptian Demotic, contains a bit of extra information, naming Tatriphis’ home town as Bompae (whose Egyptian name was Pr-bw-n-Pa-ḥ). You have to turn the label upside down when you turn to the other side – just like the Ugaritic tablet that formed the basis for Philip’s replica.
The Egyptian language was written in four different writing systems over its long history: Hieroglyphics, Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic. The first three are related to each other, and it is generally possible to transpose one into the other. You can see a slightly earlier Demotic text below, in a writing board that is also in the Fitzwilliam’s collection; in this one it is perhaps more obvious how Demotic script is related to the better-known Hieroglyphs. By contrast, the final system, Coptic, is an alphabet based on Greek, but with some extra letters for sounds that Egyptian had but which Greek did not.
The fact that this mummy label is a bilingual is testimony to the bicultural nature of Egypt during this period. Four to five centuries previously, Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt, and ever since Greek was the main language of government and was a prominent cultural force. It gradually put pressure on the major Egyptian writing system in use at this time, namely Demotic, which was over time restricted to the religious sphere, possibly explaining why it is found on this mummy label.
Not long before our mummy label was written, Egyptians started experimenting with writing their language using an alphabet. In fact, mummy labels are one of the places where they first experimented in this way. The result of this experimentation would be the Coptic alphabet – the one based on and adapted from the Greek alphabet. Coptic is the last and final writing system used to record the Egyptian language, and the one still in use today in the Coptic church.
You can find out more information about mummy labels like this one in this interactive 3D model! This one is also in Cambridge, housed in the University Library’s collection where it was digitised. If you are interested, you can also read more about Greek in Egypt HERE.
~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS project)