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Sobek, the crocodile god, at Tebtunis


 In 1888-90 British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, while excavating at Hawâra and Gurob in the Fayun region, discovered that the paper maché cartonnage used for Ptolemaic-era mummy cases included papyrus scraps with Greek writing.While most were business and personal documents, these also included important literary fragments from Homer, Plato, and Euripides.

When, in 1899-1900, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt excavated at nearby Tebtunis (Umm el Baragat) in the Fayum, they found a related, yet unique source of papyri from the cartonnage of mummified crocodiles. The practice of burying sacred crocodiles, described by the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, reached its peak during  the late Ptolemaic and early Roman periods. 

As Grenfell (1902) relates, “the pits were all quite shallow, rarely exceeding a metre in depth, and the crocodiles were sometimes buried singly, but often in groups of five or ten or even more, and with their heads pointing generally to the north.” 

[Fig.1: mummified crocodiles from Tebtunis (Egypt Exploration Fund).]

The 1899-1900 excavations by Grenfell and Hunt at Tebtunis recovered papyrus documents from three distinct sources. The largest group, dating from the late 2nd-early 1st centuries BC, came from cartonnage or wrappings used in the mummification of crocodiles at the shrines of Sobek, the crocodile god (figs.1-3). These include dozens of accounts, from rents or leases, payments in kind, sale of wheat , and banker’s receipts. Also found were records for state granaries or for other crops on crown lands in Herakleopolite, the nome or administrative district of Tebtunis, as well as reports on unproductive land. 

[Fig.2: Hieroglyphs for Sobek, the crocodile god. From left to right, the first three glyphs stand for S,B,K (vowels not shown), followed by the determinative signs for crocodile and temple (Budge 1893).]

A second source of Tebtunis papyri was cartonnage from human mummies, almost all dating from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Finally, a number of papyri came from the ruins of the town, mainly from the first three centuries AD. Most of the overall collection is in Greek, but there is also a significant body of material in demotic script.

[Fig.3: Sobek, the crocodile god, shown holding a staff and ankh. His helmet includes horns, a sundisk, and feathers (Erman 1894).]

Other crocodile mummies are illustrated in the Natural History section of the Description de l'Egypte (1809).

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