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Detail of a seated Scribe sculpture

Egyptian Letters Expose an Ancient Version of "Rage Texting"

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Written records allow us to really understand ancient people. An expert has studied three letters written by ancient Egyptians and made some interesting discoveries. She found that the letter-writers showed anger, frustration, and bitterness. These ancient Egyptian letters demonstrate the nature of friendship at the time and also that the people of the past were like us in many ways.

Dr. Deborah Sweeney, an Egyptologist at the University of Oxford, studied three letters that were found at Deir-el-Medina. This was an ancient Egyptian village that was populated by artisans and craft persons and their families who worked on the tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings during the New Kingdom period (1550-1080 BC). The site only really began to be excavated at the same time as Howard Carter was discovering the Tomb of King Tutankhamun (1922) and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Many ancient Egyptian letters have been found at Deir el-Medina, a New Kingdom village populated by artisans who worked on the tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings

Many ancient Egyptian letters have been found at Deir el-Medina, a New Kingdom village populated by artisans who worked on the tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. ( Sergey /Adobe Stock)

Ancient Egyptian Letters Revealing Daily Life

We at Ancient Origins have reported that many documents have been found in the ruined village ‘including personal letters, bills, lawsuits, prayers, ancient Egyptian literature, and thousands of papyri.’ The records and messages written on papyrus have revealed amazing insights into ordinary people’s religious beliefs, marriages, daily life , and medical treatments, and have even provided information on the world’s first strike. They have been studied for many decades but “their interest has not been exhausted,” Dr. Sweeny wrote in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology .

For many decades Dr. Sweeney has been studying the letters. Newslanded.com reports that she ‘chose three letters, in which she tries to show that there are disturbing or angry messages sent by several friends to each other.’ This helped her to get inside the heads of the ancient villagers, something that does not happen very often.

Four ancient Egyptian scribes from the Amarna period

Four ancient Egyptian scribes from the Amarna period. (Sailko/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Frustrations and Fights Put Down in Ink

In one of the letters, a scribe named Nakhtsobk writes to a worker called Amennakhte and asks him “What offence have I done against you? Aren’t I your old eating companion?” according to Newslanded.com. It appears that Amennakhte has been ‘ghosting’ the scribe. What is worse, he is trying to get him expelled from the village. It appears that the two men had a big falling out, but we will never know the reasons why or if Nakhtsobk was indeed thrown out of Deir el-Medina.

In another papyrus, a writer asks the addressee “What’s the matter with you?” reports JSTOR Daily . The letter writer also states that he is confused by the behavior of the addressee. The anonymous sender states that the friend was meant to send some ointment - but presumably, this was not delivered. According to JSTOR Daily , the author of the letter wrote that “ friends care for each other, help one another out and comply with each other’s requests.”

Some Relationships were Complicated

In the third papyrus written by an anonymous male writer, there is also a request for an ointment. It is believed that the person who wrote this letter was different from the previous missal. The author had taken in a female relative of the addressee and he requests ointment from him. In the message, the writer claims that ‘the addressee hasn’t looked after the woman well in the past, he says, and admonishes the addressee to do better going forward,’ reports JSTOR Daily .

Dr. Sweeney believes that the context of the letter is as follows: a woman leaves her home “both to consult the oracle of the queen-goddess Nefertari in Deir el-Medina—and possibly to get away from a husband mistreating her.” She may have been the wife of the male addressee. The writer also complains that the addressee is not keeping in touch.

The back of an ancient Egyptian letter known as ‘Papyrus Salt 124.’

The back of an ancient Egyptian letter known as ‘Papyrus Salt 124.’ (The Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0 )

These letters offer a window into social relations in the past in Egypt. It is evident that people were expected to act in a certain way and to be loyal. Ancient Egyptian friendship was rather like it is today, and indeed the letters could be considered early examples of ‘rage-texting,’ according to JSTOR Daily . Friendships in the New Kingdom period were just like today, sometimes they were complicated.

Top image: Detail of a seated Scribe sculpture. Three ancient Egyptian letters reveal the complexity of friendships in the past. Source: Steven Zucker/ CC BY NC SA 2.0

By Ed Whelan

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