Prof. Stephen J. Davis is Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. He specializes in the history of ancient and medieval Christianity, with a special focus on the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East.
For the last ten years, from 2006 to 2015, the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project (YMAP) has been engaged in surveys, excavations, and archaeological analysis at late ancient and early medieval Egyptian monastic sites.
YMAP-North: Monastic Archaeology in Lower Egypt
In 2006, the YMAP team conducted a geophysical survey at the site of Kellia-Pherme in the Delta region, and we also initiated surveys and excavations at the Monastery of John the Little in Wādī al-Naṭrūn (ancient Scetis). Continuing from 2006 to 2012, excavations at John the Little focused on a monastic midden (i.e. trash deposit) and an early medieval mud-brick monastic residence.
The excavated residence at John the Little is organized around a central courtryard and contains kitchen installations, a latrine, and a room (perhaps an oratory) with an extensive program of wall writings (dipinti) and figural paintings, including images of martyrs and monks, and an apocalyptic scene of Christ depicted as a horned Lamb of God.
Ceramic evidence has shown that the building was occupied until around the end of the ninth century CE. Two of the surviving wall writings are accompanied by tenth-century dates, evidence that raises the possibility that the building functioned as a place of gathering and visitation after it no longer functioned as a fulltime residence.
Analysis of archaeobotanical and archaeozoological data promises to shed light on monastic diet and practices related to local agriculture and animal husbandry. Documentation of this work continues, with a major collaborative volume currently in preparation.
YMAP-South: Monastic Archaeology in Upper Egypt
In addition to this work in northern Egypt, in 2008 the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project also assumed responsibility for archaeological documentation and conservation at the White Monastery near Sohag in southern Egypt. There, we have focused our attention on archaeological remains related to water distribution and food production and on a tomb chapel related to the fifth-century head of the monastery, Shenoute of Atripe.
Another important focus of our work has been on the architectural history of the monumental monastic church built by Shenoute in the fifth century. In the church, excavations conducted in 2011 unexpectedly also led to the discovery of hundreds of manuscript fragments, surviving traces of the monastery’s formerly vast library collection. Photographs of these fragments have since been made available for study online.
In February and March 2015, our work in the church included two urgent conservation initiatives. First, an Antiquities Endowment Fund (AEF) Grant from the American Research Center in Egypt helped support work to stabilize two sections of the church walls that were in danger of collapse. A three-dimensional test scan of the church’s north wall was also conducted to gauge patterns of deformation.
Second, the discovery of a partially detached section of painted plaster in the church sanctuary led to another emergency intervention dedicated to the consolidation and conservation of a severely threatened early medieval wall painting of the Virgin and Child.
Ongoing and Future Work
Ongoing work in Lower Egypt includes a new project to catalogue Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic manuscripts in the Monastery of the Syrians, one of the medieval monastic foundations in Wādī al-Naṭrūn that has remained active to the present day. The library collection contains almost a thousand manuscripts. Cataloguing work began in December 2013, and plans for digitizing the massive collection are currently under discussion. With an eye toward future work in Upper Egypt, YMAP has recently entered into collaborative arrangement with a German archaeological mission from Universität Tübingen to document Coptic-era remains at ancient Atripe, the site of the women’s monastery in Shenoute’s federation, located only about three kilometers south of the White Monastery. The plan is to begin excavations in February-March 2016.
Project Leadership and Support
The Yale Monastic Project was founded by Professor Stephen J. Davis (Yale University) who has served as its executive director since its inception in 2006. Professor Darlene Brooks Hedstrom (Wittenberg University) and Dr. Gillian Pyke (Yale University) have served as the project’s archaeological field directors. YMAP receives generous annual support from the Simpson Endowment for Egyptology and the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt, and the project has benefited from its longstanding cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), as well as the ecclesiastical and monastic leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
In 1913-1914, English papyrologist John de Monins Johnson excavated the Egyptian city of Antinooupolis on behalf of the Egyptian Exploration Society. Antinooupolis (Ἀντινόου πόλις) was founded as a Greek polis by emperor Hadrian in 130 CE in honour of his friend Antinoos, who is said to have drowned nearby in the Nile. Johnson was on a hunt for papyri and papyri he did find. Many of these unearthed papyri were published in the three-part Antinoopolis Papyri series in the 1950s and 1960s, although the famous "Antinoe Theocritus" papyrus was published in 1930.
In addition to papyri, these excavations yielded other objects such as coins, textiles, hairpins, and metal tools that have been given almost no attention. Included among these "lesser" finds were two socks made of wool, now housed in the British Museum:
Sock no. 1 above would have been worn by an adult on his or her right foot. There is a separation between the big toe and four other toes. This sock is made of wool and has been radiocarbon dated to 100-350 CE. One interesting thing to note is that the impression of the sandal thong is still visible!
Sock no. 2 above is a child's left-foot sock, and the obvious distinction from sock no. 1 is that it is made of 6-7 different colors. Like sock no. 1, this sock separates the big toe from the other four and is made of wool. This one is a little more intricate in design (click to enlarge). It has been radiocarbon dated to 200-400 CE.
So, did the ancient Egyptians wear socks? Of course they did. Simple objects like these two socks give us a glimpse into how ancient people lived their lives. And while Johnson and others were apparently not very interested in these "minor" finds, they are now being studied as part of a collaborative project called Antinoupolis at the British Museum, which is being led by Elisabeth R. O'Connell, Assistant Keeper (Curator) in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan with responsibility for Roman and Late Antique collections. This project will make available unpublished objects from Johnson's 1913-1914 excavations, as well as Johnson's unpublished excavation documentation. So, be on the lookout for more textiles, shoes, lamps, coins, figures, and—my favourite—a wooden clapper!
In 1924, H. Idris Bell published a papyrus roll that was discovered in Philadelphia, on the northeast side of the Fayum in ancient Egypt. Now known by its publication number P.Lond. 6.1912, it was soon recognized that this papyrus was a copy of a letter from the Roman emperor Claudius (41-54) to the Greek embassy in Alexandria. The contents of this letter have contributed to its massive popularity among papyrologists and historians alike, because it gives us a glimpse of imperial policy and regional disputes in Egypt. In fact, it has received more studies than almost any other papyrus discovered in Egypt.
In his letter, emperor Claudius was responding to a letter sent from the Alexandrians in 41 CE who wrote for three main reasons: 1) to congratulate Claudius on his accession to the imperial seat, 2) to ask for certain favors, and 3) to have him settle a dispute between the Alexandrians and the Jews of the city. In the first part of the letter, the emperor addresses the various honors the Alexandrians had offered to him, such as the erection of statues. One of the interesting facets of this part of the letter is Claudius’ description of himself as “not wanting to be arrogant to men of my own day, for sacred things and the like are granted by every age to the gods along as special honors, in my opinion” (ll. 47-50). However, scholars have questioned whether we can take this description of Claudius' character at face value, since it may well have been politically motivated.
The section of the letter that has received the most attention comes at the end of the papyrus, in columns four and five: Claudius’ response to the feud between the Greeks and Jews. The Alexandrians’ question on this matter is often referred to as “the Jewish question.” Basically, Claudius sternly warns the Alexandrians that if they do not stop fighting with each other, he will be forced to intervene: “I shall be forced to show what a benevolent leader is when turned toward righteous rage” (ll. 80-81). He orders the Alexandrians to leave the Jews alone, because they have been inhabitants of the city “from a long time ago.” Additionally, they are to respect Jewish customs. As for the Jews, they are not to agitate, intrude in the contests, or “bring in Judeans from Syria or sailing down from Egypt.” Claudius was exercising good public policy, holding to a “perfectly judicial attitude” (Bell, 22). We learn from the prefect’s edict at the very beginning of the papyrus that not everyone in Alexandria was present to hear Claudius’ letter read out publicly. So, the prefect ordered that the letter be publicly posted in Alexandria, “so that man by man each understanding the letter you may wonder at the majesty of our god Caesar and for his goodwill toward the city be grateful” (ll. 7-11).
While the papyrus itself is not dated (almost certainly the original letter would have been), the edict is dated to 10 November 41, which offers a terminus ante quem, that is, a latest possible date for the papyrus. Our copy of Claudius’ letter is written on the verso of a long roll, whose recto bears the text of a tax register. There is a question as to why this letter turned up in Philadelphia in the Fayum in a first century tax archive of an official named Nemesion, son of Zoilos. Bell was of the opinion that the contents of the letter may have been of interest to the officials in Philadelphia, who could refer to it on matters related to Alexandrian citizenship.
What follows is an English translation of the section dealing with the “Jewish question.” For a complete English translation, see here; for the Greek text of the papyrus, see here. For further reading, see the following two works:
"But for the riot and uprising against the Judaeans (=Ioudaioi), rather, if the truth be told, the war, which of the two sides was responsible, even though (75) your envoys strove for great honour from the confrontation, and especially Dionysios son of The[o]n, still I did not want to have a strict investigation, while storing up in me unrepentant rage against the ones starting again. But I announce frankly that, unless you put a stop to this (80) destructive, relentless rage against each other, I shall be forced to show what a benevolent leader is when turned toward righteous rage. For this I yet again still bear witness that Alexandrines, on the one hand, behave gently and kindly with the Judeans, the inhabitants of the same city from a long time ago, (85) and not be disrespectful of the customs used in the ritual of their god, but let them use their customs as in the time of the god Sebastos even as I myself, after hearing both sides, have confirmed; to the Judeans I give strict orders not to agitate for more than (90) they had before, nor as though dwelling in two cities to send in future two delegations, which had not ever been done before; nor intrude in the gymnasiarchic or kosmetic contests reaping the fruits of their households while enjoying (95) the abundance of benefits without envy in a foreign polis; nor to introduce or bring in Judeans from Syria or sailing down from Egypt, from which I shall be forced to have serious suspicions; or else I shall take vengeance on them in every way as though (100) rousing up some common plague on the world. If after you stand aside from these things you both should wish to live together with gentleness and kindness towards each other, I shall send forth to the highest degree providence for the city as belonging to our household from bygone times. (105) I bear witness to my companion Barbillus always showing regar[d] for us (you?) before me, and who just now with complete zeal for honour has consult[ed] about the contest about you, and to Tiberius Claudius Archibios my compan[ion.] Farewell."
In P.Col. 10.254, an interesting 2nd century papyrus from Egypt, we meet Herakleia who purchases a female slave named Berenike. Since Herakleia is herself a woman, this raises questions about women's property in Egypt. How much property could women possess? Was it normal for women to buy slaves? Did women purchase slaves for themselves or on behalf of men? In her article "Women as Property Owners in Roman Egypt" (TAPA 113, 1983: 311-321), Deborah Hobson demonstrated, from her analysis of documentary papyri, that women often owned a good deal of property. Usually, property was kept in the family and women and men were recipients of family property, even though men were the usual recipients of real estate (there are several exceptions). P.Col. 10.254 (text reproduced below) is not unique; there are indeed other papyri that mention women as purchasers of slaves (e.g., BGU 11.2111, P.Col. 8.219, P.Oxy. 1.73). So, we know that women could purchase slaves.
But what P.Col. 10.254 and other similar papyri reveal is that women had access to full participation in the economy of Roman Egypt. Herakleia visited the appropriate financial office in person and the transaction was made in her name without any objection. In other words, there seems to have been no social stigma attached to Herakleia's purchase of her own property. The text indicates that Herakleia could "dispose" (i.e., sell, transfer) of Berenike "in whatever way she chooses," underscoring her rights to her property. As the editor maintains, "this is clearly a case of a woman acting independently of men in her own financial interests" (P.Col. 10.254, p. 25). Documentary papyri thus reflect social realities and deepen our knowledge of all sorts of human activity in Egypt, from transportation, business, death, marriage, divorce, and so on.
Notice in the image at the bottom, in a second hand, the subscription of Petechon, from whom Herakleia purchased Berenike. This is an example of a "slow writer," someone who could write his name and a few practiced lines but nothing more. The contract itself was probably written by a private clerk.