Ancient Egyptians sold themselves into temple slavery
|The small temple of Soknebtynis (‘Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis’), dating to the Ptolemaic and Greek period [Credit: Egyptian Monuments]|
|The ancient town site of Tebtunis situated at the southern edge of the Faiyum [Credit: Egyptian Monuments]|
|A contract comprised of fragments from Papyrus [Credit: University of Copenhagen]|
"Many therefore chose to live as temple slaves because it was the only way of avoiding the harsh and possibly even deadly alternative; the temple was simply the lesser of two evils for these people. And for the temples, this was a lucrative practice that gave them extra resources and money."
According to Kim Ryholt, the possibility of avoiding forced labour by entering into slave contracts with temples was limited to a 60-year-period – from roughly 190 BC to 130 BC. There is no indication that the practice existed in any other period in ancient Egypt; probably because the royal family could not, in the long run, afford to yield that many resources to the temples.
A global papyrus jigsaw puzzle
The papyrus slave contracts were found in a rubbish dump next to the Tebtunis temple durit illicit excavations and were subsequently scattered across Egypt, Europe and the United States. So it has taken Kim Ryholt years to collect and analyse the contracts.
"The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection at the University of Copenhagen contains a large number of contracts, but many are fragmentary, and in order to study the whole material I have had to visit many other collections where there would be a chance to find Tebtunis contracts, including the British Museum, university collections in New Haven, Michigan and Florence, and not least Tebtunis itself where I participate in the modern excavations. In some cases, a contract might be physically divided between, for instance, Copenhagen and the British Museum, and the fragments are then scanned and put together virtually on the computer," Kim Ryholt says.
Source: University of Copenhagen [December 19, 2012]