A rubbish dump dating back to Ancient Egypt offers fascinating glimpses into life in the City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish.
Our collective memory of the past is mostly confined to grand figures and epic events, while the vast majority of humanity ends up in the wastelands of oblivion.
Thanks to nearly half a million papyrus fragments uncovered in Hellenic Egyptian rubbish dumps which are being gradually decoded, however, we are, quite literally, salvaging fragments of ordinary people's lives from the dustbin of history.
The rubbish dumps in question belonged to the provincial but thriving Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus (City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish), about 100 miles south of modern Cairo, which was established during the pharaonic New Kingdom and became Hellenised in Ptolemic times, but was eventually reduced to a single standing column.
Most of the unearthed documents, discovered by two Victorian archaeologists, date from the time when Egypt was part of the Roman empire, and include a treasure trove of lost classics and non-canonical gospels.
Peter Parsons, an archaeologist who spent two decades leading the team deciphering the papyri, has written a book that offers a fascinating reconstruction of life in Oxyrhynchus.
For me, the mundane aspects of ordinary life highlighted in correspondences and letters in the book are among the most enthralling of all the finds because they reveal both how familiar and how different that lost world is.
“Write to me about your health and what you need from here,” Achillion exhorts his brother, Hierakapollon. “If you do this, you will have done me a favour: for we shall have the impression, through our letters, of seeing one another face to face.”
Not everyone is as friendly as Achillion. Some letters reveal ancient snobberies and grievances. “You exult in your wealth and your great abundance of possession and so you look down on your friend,” Theoninos chastises Didymos.
Serenos informs his wife, Isidora, of his sense of abandonment: “From the time you went away from me, I have been mourning, weeping by night and grieving by day … You sent me letters that could shake a stone.”
Nowadays, we are fortunate enough to have telephones, email and web-based tools so that we can actually chat face to face, as Achillion desires, at a distance.
Future historians ought to have a much easier task reconstructing ordinary lives than their counterparts do today. But this may not actually be the case. Future civilisations may not be aware of how our computer systems worked, and may find the endless streams of binary code indecipherable.
So future historians and archaeologists may also be left rummaging around in our rubbish dumps, where our most enduring artefacts are likely to be “disposable” yet strangely indestructible nappies, Styrofoam boxes and plastic bags.
As you will have noticed, most of the names above sound Greek. That is because, following Alexander's conquest of Egypt, in 332 BC, Oxyrhynchus and other Egyptian cities were Hellenised. This meant that, over the next millennium, they became home to perhaps 500,000 Greeks as well as Hellenised Egyptians.
How “Greek” these urban dwellers were is open to question, since their culture and lifestyle was a heady blend of Egyptian and Greek elements. But they did speak Greek and studied the classics. “To some extent, the Greeks remade Egypt; to a much larger extent, it remade them,” notes Parsons.
At the same time, as a “foreign” ruling elite, the Greeks of Egypt looked down on the native Egyptians and mocked their weird beliefs and practices, such as sibling marriage. Greek myth, like many strands of Orientalism, stereotyped Egyptians as “cruel, perverse, depraved and treacherous”.
One area of particular venom was the relative freedom enjoyed by Egyptian women. “Egyptians rear all their offspring,” one Egyptian Greek mocked, referring to the fact that Egyptians did not dump their unwanted children, particularly girls, in the city's rubbish dumps.
Prior to the Hellenisation of Egypt, Egyptian women enjoyed equal legal rights with Egyptian men and “marriage” was an oral affair, easily entered into and easily dissolved.
In Hellenic Egypt, Greek norms in which women had no independent legal status from men began to filter into the Egyptian system. Roman rule brought a certain amount of relief for women because it allowed women with three children to own property and conduct their own affairs.
So, much about Oxyrhynchus is like contemporary city life but with a peculiarly ancient twist. The city had its own town council, with a mayor (prytanis) and magistrates. However, the council was staffed by prominent citizens who had to pay out of their own pockets if they failed to meet their targets.
Tax collecting was outsourced to private individuals, and the city implemented a Roman version of the dole in which free rations were given to the wealthy and prominent citizens, not the poor and needy.
Oxyrhynchus, like other towns, had the equivalent of banks, bank accounts and cheques, and clients could order payments to be made or receive funds in other cities, too. The twist here was that wheat was a recognised currency back then. People also entered into surprisingly detailed and binding contracts.
For a provincial city, Oxyrhynchus had a surprisingly wide range of goods – from food and beer to medicaments and books – and a large population of specialist tradesmen and professionals. The city also had pretensions to a higher status, with costly public baths and fountains dotted all around. It also once took on the potentially crippling burden of hosting the Roman version of the Olympics, the Capitoline games.
Just as the ordinary people of Oxyrhynchus were ignored by history, they also paid little heed, judging by the fragmentary evidence, to the grand events of history going on about them: the rise and fall of different emperors in Rome, rebellions in Alexandria and Judea, and the persecution of Christianity followed by the persecution of pagans.
“We hear nothing about political attitudes, nothing about the deeds, characters or deaths of great men. It may be a matter of prudence; it may be a matter of indifference,” Parsons observes. In a way, that's poetic justice.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 18 May 2008.