Polish archaeologists found papyrus with letters from Roman centurions stationed in Egypt in Berenike. These unique documents were discovered along with, among other things, ceramics from Italy, Roman coins, and a specific cloak brooch in what might have been the remains of a centurion’s office.

For Egyptologists and other scholars of Antiquity, this is an extremely rare and significant discovery. There are very few sites from the Roman period in this part of the world. The Egyptians do not promote this era of history, among other reasons, because it is the time when they were conquered. On the other hand, the range of these discoveries is truly phenomenal, explains Dr. Marta Osypińska from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Wrocław.

Berenike, located on the Red Sea, is an ancient port built by Emperor Tiberius shortly after the Roman Empire annexed Egypt. Archaeologists have suspected for years that the Third Cyrenaica Legion, which pacified the famous revolt in Jerusalem in the year 70, for example, was also stationed in Berenike.

Excavations in the animal cemetery at Berenice, where the papyri were found
Excavations in the animal cemetery at Berenike, where the papyri were found. Credit: Instytut Archeologii Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego

An international team led by Dr. Marta Osypińska investigated a unique animal burial site from the 1st and 2nd centuries in Berenike. Among the animal burials discovered there, archaeologists found an accumulation of exclusive ceramics from Italy, the Mediterranean, Africa, and India, Roman coins, a fibula—a characteristic and popular cloak fastener in Europe, which legionaries were equipped with. Among the finds were also ostraca (text fragments on pottery) and, most importantly, several papyri, which can be an invaluable source of knowledge about the ancient inhabitants of Berenike.

The correspondence preserved on the papyri are letters from centurions or commanders of Roman legions. Names appear in the letters: Haosus, Lucinius, and Petronius.

In this correspondence, Petronius asks Lucinius, stationed in Berenice, about the prices of certain exclusive goods. There is also a statement: I give you the money, I send them with dromedarius (a troop of legionaries who move on dromedaries). Take care of them, so that they are provided with calves and tent poles, describes the archaeologist.

Another view of the excavations at Berenike
Another view of the excavations at Berenike. Credit: Instytut Archeologii Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego

The animal cemetery where the papyri were found is located in the western district of Berenike. Until now, mostly ostraca had been found there, which, according to Dr. Osypińska, are a “coveted object” for philologists and epigraphists. It is a direct Roman written source and it is in Egypt. Now, when we search for animal burials, we uncover dozens of these ostraca. So far, however, no one has found papyri at this site, she emphasizes.

According to researchers, the finds come from the office or residence of the centurion, which must have been near the cemetery. Over the years, as the area was leveled, the remains of the legionaries’ presence were mechanically applied to the animal cemetery.

Initially, it was difficult to assess the importance of the discovery. The archaeologists only found small rolls a few centimeters long. Although identified as papyrus fragments, papyri were usually preserved in this way without writing.

However, we secured them and awaited the arrival of the epigraphist, the head of the Institute of Papyrology at the University of Heidelberg, Professor Rodney Asta. He and his wife assembled a puzzle half a meter long and 30 cm wide from these small rolls. They covered them with glass to allow them to expand and were able to assemble several letters from them. Now the texts are still being carefully studied, describes the researcher.

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