I am currently editing a small Greek papyrus that refers to a boat in the harbor of a monastery, which belongs to a certain Victor. Since transportation in Egypt was frequently done by boat along the Nile, it is no surprise that we find many references to boats in the papyri. Boats were most often owned by social elites, such as officials, aristocrats, and wealthy businessmen. What is surprising (at least to me anyway) is that several papyri actually mention boats that were owned by monasteries, bishops, and monks. From two related fourth century papyri (P.Col. 7.160 and 161), we learn that a bishop by the name of Hierapollon owned four boats. In P.Harr. 1.94 (fourth century), we learn that a Christian priest named Apollonius, son of a bishop named Dionysus, was the owner of a boat. P.Oxy. 34.2729, a fourth century Christian letter, mentions the boat of Thodoros the bishop. These boats were most likely the private property of well-to-do Christian clergy or their churches/monasteries. Jean Gascou has argued that monasteries made their boats available to the service of the state. Certainly, from the documentary record, we can see that some monastic communities were holders of much property and other kinds of assets. Perhaps some monks retained portions of their pre-monastic wealth. Some of these possessions were used to generate income and establish monastic estates. We learn of the leasing of part of a water wheel (P.Oxy. 16.1900), a boat anchor (SB 8.9683), and land (P.Ross.Georg. 3.48). Anyway, monastic life didn’t always mean empty, unadorned, and dark cells. Some monastic circles were participating in the lively economy of Byzantine Egypt just like everyone else. And some apparently had boats!
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus yielded thousands upon thousands of papyrus manuscript fragments that have provided—and continue to provide—a tremendous source of knowledge about the ancient world. But what some people may not realize is the fact that several parchment fragments were also among the finds at Oxyrhynchus. Since parchment was considerably more expensive than papyrus, we can understand why there is almost no extant evidence at Oxyrhynchus of parchment being used for everyday kinds of documents (there are only a few exceptions, such as P.Iand. 2.12 and SB 3.7269). So, the parchment fragments we do find at Oxyrhynchus are primarily literary or sub-literary in genre. And most of these fragments date from the fourth century and later, since parchment, as far as we can tell, did not come to be used with much regularity until the fourth century. In any case, here is a small sample of some interesting parchment fragments discovered at Oxyrhynchus.
PSI 3.251 (NA 0176; LDAB 3032)
This is a fifth century Greek parchment fragment containing portions of Galatians 3. This is a beautiful specimen in terms of the quality of the parchment and the elegance of its script. It once belonged to a beautiful miniature codex, perhaps containing the entire New Testament. Notice the wide spacing in between letters, the lining of the parchment, and the positioning of the letter π into the left margin in the right image (a phenomenon known as “ekthesis”).
P.Oxy. 5.840 (LDAB 5831)
[From Wikipedia]: “Oxyrhynchus 840 (P. Oxy. V 840), found in 1905, is a single small vellum parchment leaf with 45 lines of text written on both sides in a tiny neat hand that dates it to the 4th century, almost square, less than 10 cm across. It is kept at the Bodleian Library, MS. Gr. th. g. 11 (P).” There is a question about what kind of text this is and how was it used (apocryphal gospel, amulet, miniature codex). Nonetheless, it offers interesting and otherwise unattested sayings of Jesus, who is called “Savior” in the manuscript. An English translation may be found here.
P.Oxy. 8.1080 (NA 0169; LDAB 2793)
This is a fourth century Greek parchment fragment containing the text of Revelation 3:19-4:3. It is written on both sides in a nice literary hand, and features nomina sacra, pagination (“33 and 34”), and scribal corrections. Interestingly, like P.Oxy. 5.840 above, this is also considered to be a miniature codex, which is traditionally defined as a codex whose width is less than 10cm (more on miniature codices here).
P.Oxy. 8.1077 (LDAB 2959)
Written on an oblong piece of parchment, this sixth-seventh century Greek amulet contains writing in the shape of crosses, surrounded by a human figure drawn in the center. It begins with the title, “Curative gospel according to Matthew,” which precedes a citation of Matt 4:23-24—a narrative summary that depicts Jesus as a healer of every illness and infirmity. I subjected this amulet, the drawing, and its biblical text to an analysis in my doctoral dissertation. (Question: Do you think the figure in the middle is a man or a woman?)
P.Oxy. 7.1007 (LDAB 3113)
Dating to the third century, this is the earliest parchment of the bunch. It is a codex fragment of the Septuagint written in two columns, and contains portions of Genesis 2 and 3. Probably the most interesting feature of this fragment is that it contains the normal Christian abbreviation (nomen sacrum) of θεός, but the word κύριος (=the Tetragrammaton) is abbreviated with double Hebrew yods in the shape of a Z (not pictured below)! This is remarkable because this was a distinctively Jewish scribal phenomonen! Thus, scholars cannot decide whether this is a Jewish or Christian copy of Genesis, since the abbreviation of θεός (with contraction and overlining) was disctinvely Christian, and the abbreviation of κύριος (with double yods) was distinctively Jewish.
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 a couple recent posts (here and here), I discussed two ancient papyri which dealt with violence. In both cases, the writer was seeking justice from the state through an official petition. In this post, we learn of another interesting case of violence in a papyrus mentioning a Christian monk and deacon.
P.Col. 7.171 is a single sheet of well-preserved papyrus that was discovered in the ancient town of Karanis, Egypt. It is inscribed with the text of a petition dated to 6 June 324 C.E. Let's jump right into the text:
"To Dioskoros Caeso, praepositus of the 5th pagus, from Isidoros son of Ptolemaios, from the village of Karanis in your pagus. The cattle of Pamounis and Harpalos damaged the planting which I have and, what is more, [their cow] grazed in the same place so thoroughly that my husbandry has become useless. I caught the cow and was leading it up to the village when they met me in the fields with a big club, threw me to the ground, rained blows upon me and took away the cow—as indeed the (marks of) the blows all over me show—and if I had not chanced to obtain help from the deacon Antoninus and the monk Isaac, who happened by, they would probably have finished me off completely. Therefore, I submit this document, asking that they be brought before you to preserve my claim (to be heard) in the prefectural court both in the matter of the planting and in the matter of the assault. In the year of the consuls-to-be for the fourth time, Pauni 12."
There are several very interesting features of this papyrus. First, it should be noted that this papyrus is part of a larger cache of papyri (known as an "archive") belonging to Isidoros. We learn from some of his other petitions that Isidoros had a reoccurring problem with animals eating his crop. For example, in a document known as P.Cair.Isid. 78, dated five months prior to the papyrus under discussion, Isidoros summons the local police officers in Karanis to hunt down and arrest the owners of some animals who ate his crop. The owners of the animals are not mentioned in that papyrus, but it is possible that they belonged to Pamounis and Harpalos, who are mentioned in our papyrus. We can only imagine what caused this attack. Perhaps Pamounis and Harpalos were fed up with Isidoros going to the authorities about their cows and so wanted to make a point: "leave us and our cows alone and don't go to the police." Or perhaps it all started with a heated argument. I can just imagine Isidoros giving the two men a piece of his mind, to the point that they got fed up with him and took to fighting. Whatever the case, we learn that the two men beat him severely and left him in the wheat field.
Second, two good samaritans come to Isidoros' rescue: a Christian deacon and monk. This is historically important because it is the earliest secular reference to the term "deacon," as well as the earliest reference to "monachos" in the institutional sense of "monk," if we can indeed understand it in this way. Egyptian monasticism as a movement began roughly at the beginning of the fourth century with St. Anthony, and so we have here an extremely early reference to a monk, perhaps within a few decades of the very beginnings of monasticism. We know nothing about these men except their names and ecclesiastical titles, but Isidoros' citation of them suggests that a Christian institution was alive and well in (or near) Karanis in 324, a year of tremendous importance in the history of early Christianity. This was the year that Constantine the Great defeated Licinius, became sole ruler of the western and eastern empire, and upheld with fervor his support of Christianity empire-wide. One year later (325), Constantine convened the First Council of Nicaea. Thus, when read against the religious and political backdrop of 324, the petition of Isidoros takes on new meaning. At a time of civil war and heated debate about the place of Christianity within the empire, a Christian deacon and monk—ecclesiastical colleagues?—from a small farming town in Egypt emerge as good samaritans, representing the religion that was on the cusp of exploding across the Roman empire and the entire western world.
Several open-ended questions
* Isidoros mentions the monk and deacon by name. Would the prefect have known who they were?
* Whatever happened to Isidoros? This is the latest dated document from his archive so we learn nothing more about him.
*What was the relationship between the deacon and monk? Obviously, Isaac could not have been a desert ascetic, since he is here associated with a Church clergyman.
*How do we understand "monk" in this case (admittedly a bigger and perhaps more important historical question)?