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Papyrus; Hieratic legal text recto (2 columns) and verso (2 columns), recording complaint by Amennakht to the Vizier about the actions of Paneb.

This Ancient Egyptian Papyrus is the Oldest Known Account of Sexual Assault in the Workplace

Back in 1200 BC, a man named Paneb was accused of corruption and sexual assault and those charges likely cost him his job. His crimes were recorded on an ancient Egyptian papyrus and have been known about for decades, but the current social climate has brought his terrible acts back to light.

According to Quartz, Paneb “was one of the most accomplished workmen in a town of artisans who chiseled the pharaohs’ tombs.” He worked in Deir el Medina as a chief workman responsible for building the Theban tombs.

A Damning Report

A man named Amennakht made Paneb’s crimes known to the Vizier Hori in what is now called the Papyrus Salt 124 . The British Museum has held the document in their collection since the early 19th century.

The back of Papyrus Salt 124. (The Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY NC SA 4.0)

The back of Papyrus Salt 124. (The Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

Narratively reports the written complaint tells the vizier that Paneb stole Amennakht’s job (Amennakht should have inherited the role), robbed royal tombs and temples, assaulted several men, damaged sacred space, lied under oath, sexually assaulted (or at least harassed) a woman, and committed adultery with many other local women.

Quartz writes that in the papyrus Paneb “is accused of stripping a woman named Yeyemwaw, throwing her against a wall and violating her.” However, Narratively points out that “it is not clear whether or not it implies sexual assault. As Pascal Vernus notes in Affairs and Scandals in Ancient Egypt, the verb used means fornication, with no connotation of consent or lack thereof.”

However, the papyrus also includes the names of several women who were “debauched” by Paneb. Paneb’s horrendous acts would have put a strain on relations in the small town of Deir el Medina, where it is likely almost everyone knew each other.

Janet Johnson, professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago, explained the social norms regarding sexual conduct at the time, “Sexual activity by unmarried individuals (pre-marriage, after divorce or death of one’s partner) was not regulated by society. But if a person was married, male or female, they were expected to be faithful to their partner.”

An ancient Egyptian woman and man circa 1500-1450 BC. (Public Domain)

An ancient Egyptian woman and man circa 1500-1450 BC. ( Public Domain )

No one knows for certain if Amennakht’s letter to the vizier specifically led to Paneb losing his job, but records do show that another workman, Aanakht, became the next foreman.

Status of Women in Ancient Egypt

Although it was still a struggle in Paneb’s time, women did hold highly-regarded social roles and had rights in ancient Egypt. With effort, some rose to the ranks of influential physicians, political advisors, scribes, or even rulers.

In Deir el-Medina, for instance, women learned to write and could exchange letters with their peers and partners as well as become scribes. For example, Seshat’s priestesses are recorded to have been well educated writers who served nobles and rulers. The first known example of a female scribe is dated to the 6th dynasty period.

Seshat carved on the back of the throne of the seated statue of Rameses II in the Amun temple at Luxor. (CC0 1.0 )

Seshat carved on the back of the throne of the seated statue of Rameses II in the Amun temple at Luxor. ( CC0 1.0 )

In the political realm, two known female viziers (the highest officials to serve the Pharaoh) are Nebet, who held her role during the reign of pharaoh Pepi I of the 6th dynasty, and Queen Cleopatra I Syra, mother of Cleopatra II, Ptolemy VI, and Ptolemy VIII, who was vizier during the reign of Ptolemy V.

Regarding the medical profession, one of the best-known female doctors was Peseshet. She lived during the reign of the 4th and 5th dynasties and was known as the main doctor of the Kingdom. Reportedly, Peseshet was highly educated, undertook surgeries, and created medicines – such as healing cancer of the womb by using a mixture of fresh dactyls, bay leaves, and the essence of seashells.

Peseshet. ( Rebel women embroidery )

Peseshet. ( Rebel women embroidery )

Top Image: Papyrus; Hieratic legal text recto (2 columns) and verso (2 columns), recording complaint by Amennakht to the Vizier about the actions of Paneb. Source: The Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0

By Alicia McDermott

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