Lab #2 – Ancient Texts

Egyptian Letter to the Dead

Egyptian Letter to the Dead

The first object I have chosen to analyze is a letter to the dead. It is from Egypt, from the Old Kingdom, Dynasty 6, 2350-2150 B.C.

According to the display, “this letter… is from an unidentified sender to a man named Tetiseneb. Tetiseneb’s son was apparently suffering from some type of ailment, and the letter asks the father to drive away the demon responsible, pleading with him to ‘Heal your child!’” In the Egyptian culture, maintaining a positive relationship with the dead was considered important because it was believed that the dead could interact with those who were still living. This practice seems to have been a fairly common one, though only fifteen letters requesting assistance from the dead are still in existence today (according to the display at the MFA).

The medium of the letter is ink on papyrus. Papyrus is made from reeds that grow near the Nile River. In order to make the reed into writing material, the inside of the stalk of the plant was cut or peeled into strips which were then laid out in layers, one horizontal and one vertical, which were then pressed together and dried. Many of these sheets could be joined to form a roll, just by using the natural gum of the plant as adhesive joining sheets together. (Library of the University of Michigan). The black ink seen here was likely made “by burning organic materials such as wood or oil, and then pulverizing the material before mixing it with water” and “a binder, probably a plant gum from the Acacia tree family” (Brooklyn Museum). The ancient Egyptians used reed brushes to write on the papyrus with the ink.

This particular piece of papyrus was used as a letter, and its format is that of a small sheet, as was used for individual letter writing, in contrast to the format of longer rolls used for literary works.

Papyrus and ink took effort to make, and were therefore valuable. In order to write anything, a person had to purchase the papyrus sheets, ink, and reed brushes—not a cheap endeavor. This amount of effort and value meant that the text would be something considered important by the author. By the fact that the author was able to purchase the necessary materials and write the letter, we can infer that he (or she) is not poor, and has at least some education, or is wealthy enough to pay a scribe to write the letter. It is interesting to note that papyrus was used rather than parchment because this artifact is from Egypt, where reeds were more plentiful than they were in Europe.

Old papyrus sheets were sometimes even recycled as wrapping for mummies! (Library of University of Michigan) This knowledge seems ironic when used to analyze the writing of this letter to a dead person.


Greek coin

Greek coin

The second item I have chosen to analyze is a Greek coin. It is from the Greek colony of Lukania on the southern portion of the Italian peninsula from about 530-500 B.C (Wikipedia tells me that this date does fall within ancient history). The display describes this coin as a “stater with Poseidon hurling a trident.”

A stater is “an ancient gold or silver coin of the Greek city-states” (Merriam-Webster). These coins were made by putting a lump of gold or silver into an iron mold, and then hammering it down to fill the mold and take the form of a coin. The hammer would also have a mold on it, allowing the maker to form both sides of the coin at the same time (History for Kids).

The fact that these coins were used as currency meant that they needed to be made of a form that was durable and easily transportable—frail papyrus would certainly not hold up as well as metal. The people who used this “text” used it as currency, for buying and selling commodities, rather than for sharing or learning information. Having the form of a coin, a unit of currency, tells us that it could be something possessed by anyone in society who has enough wealth to have a coin of that value. I don’t know how much this particular coin was worth, but if it was a lot then the people whose hands it circulated through must have occupied a higher economic status.

The text on the coin was formed by a mold and is therefore made out of the same material as the rest of the coin, rather than text on papyrus which was formed through using ink via pen. The display did not give any information about what the writing on this particular coin says, but it tells us that the image is a representation of Poseidon hurling a trident. This is a reference to Greek mythology, which was a large part of Greek culture. The text is likely also something that would be understood as a part of Greek culture.

Currency is an interesting form of text because it is meant to be circulated rather than owned by an individual. Money is basically worthless if it is hung on the wall, never intended to be used. It gains its worth by being given away in exchange for goods or services.


Cuneiform tablet

Cuneiform tablet

The third artifact I have chosen to analyze is a cuneiform tablet from the Mesopotamian region during the reign of Shu-Sin, a Sumerian king of Ur, from about 2037 B.C. According to the display, “it records the receipt of grain and other commodities.”

The term “cuneiform” refers to a style of writing, being wedge-shaped because it is formed through use of a stylus leaving small marks in a clay tablet (Metropolitan Museum of Art). It is unique in that it is an example of the oldest known form of writing of language (not just numbers). On this particular tablet, it looks as if the text is made up of marks as well as pictures, though it could be that the pictures are just accompanying images rather than actually part of the language. If so, the images seem to reflect the purpose of buying grain, as we see a man using a scale to weigh something, which reflects purchasing the grain.

This tablet is quite small, which reflects its purpose: to be a receipt that someone can easily carry around with them to verify a purchase. It is made out of clay, which is a less valuable material than silver or gold, allowing more of it to be used than if someone wanted to write receipts for customers on something more valuable/expensive. This could be something done by anyone who is wealthy enough to purchase (or go find) clay as well as the stylus used for marking the wet clay. Being made out of clay seems like a form that is practical to find and use. The seal on it marks its validity and serves to further its purpose as verifying a purpose.

In order for someone to be able to use this form, both parties involved must be educated enough to have basic literacy levels. The person who writes the receipt must of course know how to write, and it is helpful if the buyer can read so that he can verify the receipt, but if he cannot read than the receipt will only be helpful to verify his purchase to someone who is literate.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *