Around 300 BCE, there lived in Egypt a man called Thamista. When his bronze pot was stolen, one of the town folk, suspicious of Thamista decided to seek the help of Sobek, the crocodile god. On a piece of papyrus the owner of the bronze pot wrote, “If Thamista was the man who has stolen my bronze pot, give me this card” and put it along with cards with the names of other suspects. In a ritual in Sobek’s temple, one of these cards was picked and the suspect was found.
When archaeologists found papyri like these, they all mentioned a town called Tebtunis which was no where to be found. These papyri contained literary texts, records of private contracts, and descriptions of religious acts such as the one involving the crocodile god. This town which was lost in 12th century has now been located.
“The papyri give us particular and historic information that cannot be found elsewhere,” says Claudio Gallazzi, professor of papyrology at Milan University who has led the international effort here since 1988. The papyri and other archaeological finds are painting an ever more detailed picture of life in this ethnically mixed village over a long period of time. For example, Gallazzi says, they show that there was a strong Greek presence in the town at a time when most Greeks in Egypt were thought to have lived only in big cities. They also illuminate the surrounding areas with which Tebtunis interacted and traded. “When we find a treasurer’s registry, I know it contains interesting economic matters from many villages in the Fayum area, not just Tebtunis. And when we find religious documents, we can understand more about previously unrecognized religious-magic rituals [surrounding the crocodile god] pertinent to all of Egypt,” he adds.[Letters to the Crocodile God]