Thursday, September 19, 2013


Mario Capasso, Paola Davoli (ed.), Soknopaiou Nesos Project, I (2003-2009). Biblioteca di studi di egittologia e di papirologia, 9. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2012. Pp. 438; 15 p. of plates. ISBN 9788862274357. €195.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Richard Jasnow, Johns Hopkins University (

Version at BMCR home site

While Oxyrhynchus may assume pride of place in Greek papyrological circles, the Fayumic towns of Soknopaiou Nesos (Dime) and its southern counterpart, Tebtunis, are not far behind. Both of these sites are especially important to Egyptologists who study the period from about 200 B.C. to 300 A.D. In recent years a steady stream of exciting studies and text editions have appeared dealing with material from both Soknopaiou Nesos and Tebtunis. Soknopaiou Nesos Project I (2003-2009), will doubtless be welcomed by all those conducting research connected with this town.

The massive volume presents the results of the excavations conducted at Soknopaiou Nesos from 2003-2009 by the Centro di Studi Papirologici of the University of Salento. The co-editors of this book are the Greek papyrologist Mario Capasso and the archaeologist Paola Davoli; the contributors are an international group of specialists. A striking aspect of more recent work on the Graeco-Roman Fayum has been its collaborative character. There has been a concerted effort in recent years to bridge the unfortunate gulf between archaeologists and philologists.1 In this volume attention is duly given to both archaeology and texts. While the authors emphasize that their results must still be considered provisional, the data presented will doubtless retain a permanent value.

Capasso and Davoli first sketch the history of the site (11-18), which was visited by many early travelers and scholars. The distinguished Egyptian Egyptologist Ahmed Bey Kamal published in 1907 the translation of an intriguing Arabic mediaeval manuscript, entitled "The Book of Hidden Pearls," which contains a description of Dime (11). Famous visitors include Richard Pococke, Giovanni Belzoni, and Richard Lepsius. Among more modern excavators are Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt (1900-1901) and Friedrich Zucker (1909-1910). The University of Michigan began important excavations in 1931; A.E.R. Boak published much of the material in 1935. The Centro di Studi Papirologici dell' Università del Salento initiated campaigns at Soknopaiou Nesos in 2001.

Ivan Chiesi et al. offer a very detailed study of the topography of the site (23-81). Soknopaious Nesos is fortunately located in an isolated northern part of the Fayum, which, as observed (24), has undoubtedly contributed to its preservation. This section is enriched with many illustrations, photographs, and maps. Of particular interest are the comparisons of the contemporary archaeological plans with the buildings as mapped by Lepsius, Belzoni, and John Gardner Wilkinson. Several magnificent fold-out plans of the site are included with the volume.

In the second chapter Giuseppe Alvar Minaya focuses on the dromos of Dime (83-109). This processional street is in a fine state of preservation, measuring some 329 meters (84). The site has, of course, been often excavated in the past, with varying degrees of competency. Still, the chapter contains analysis of features not previously noted, e.g., kiosks in the dromos (84), polychrome pavement (97), sphinxes, and even a Greek inscription on the pavement (105).

The third chapter of Tatyana Smekalova comprises the findings of the geophysical survey (begun in 2006), the chief goal being to discover the water supply of Soknopaiou Nesos (111-115). There is a detailed technical review of the method of investigation. Another aim of this survey was to "check the hypothesis that the original temple was built on a top of a natural hill" (111 and 115).

Chapter four, written by Paola Davoli, is the report on the archaeological campaigns themselves from 2003-2009 (119-227). The central deities of this site are Soknopaios (a form of Sobek), and Isis Nepherses. The temple devoted to them, "built in the second half of the Ptolemaic period" (119), is the focal point of this chapter. Davoli carefully explicates the archaeological methodology employed during the excavation (119-122). This is followed by a well-illustrated description of the temenos and the internal building (122-127). Again, this section of the site has naturally been previously excavated, and Davoli describes the evidence for these earlier investigations (e.g., 131, with the discovery of coca-cola bottle caps). The archaeologists have worked to recover the stratigraphy despite the disturbances to the site (see, e.g., the analysis of the "mysterious corridor" on 180). Davoli precisely lists the find-spots for the various objects discovered in the excavations (127 ff.). Given that such information is lacking for the overwhelming majority of Dime papyri and ostraca in museum collections, it is gratifying to have such attention paid to where inscribed objects, such as two Demotic ostraca (133) or the Greek and Demotic papyri, were found (134). A sarcophagus was also recovered in section ST0-3/23/300 (135). The graphics considerably enhance the value of the book; figure 41, for example, shows the "dispersion of the architraves and pieces of architraves in sectors 1-5 in the area of ST 203" (148). The level of detail of enumeration is impressive. Thus, one reads that in Sector 4 many stone fragments of a statue were found (165); in ST09/661/2909 was discovered a "piece of white plaster with black ink and with Demotic inscription and schematic image of an ibis." (208 and 263) In the "area to the west of the temenos" was a rich abundance of finds, including 23 Demotic ostraca (212). In her "conclusions" Davoli stresses that this series of campaigns was of central importance for the study of Soknopaios, having brought to light the principal temple and the associated buildings (217). Davoli further states that the edifice ST 18 was constructed with the function of a temple possibly at the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period on a natural hill, the previous buildings having been razed to the ground (218). ST 20 will be the subject of a future study (219).

The third part of the volume contains catalogues of various classes of objects. The fifth chapter (231-247) of Mario Capasso treats the "Greek papyri and ostraca, as well as the figured and Coptic texts." Capasso observes that, despite their fragmentary nature, these documents reveal the "activity of the priests of Soknopaios' temple" (231 and also 246). These priests were evidently engaged in "magic," to judge from the 18 papyri inscribed with magical images, which Capasso characterizes as "amulets." There is also a Roman Period Greek oracular question to Amun (236= number 5b), a type of text very common in the Demotic material from Soknopaiou Nesos and Tebtunis (247). Capasso suggests that the six Greek oracular questions in the Berlin Museum also derive from Zucker's excavations in Soknopaiou Nesos (247). The very existence of the few Coptic documents indicates that the town was occupied after the third century A.D. (231 and 247). Once more, it is valuable to learn the precise location where the texts were found (232). Virtually all the Greek texts appear to be Roman Period documents; there are very few pure literary compositions (but cf. 241= number 102). Capasso suggests that the texts indicate that Soknopaiou Nesos maintained very much its "Egyptian character" also in the Roman Period (247). This idea is supported by the impressive number of Demotic Egyptian texts preserved from the site. Capasso emphasizes that these texts are still in an early stage of study, and that, despite their fragmentary condition, they should be able to tell us much about the religious life of the inhabitants of Soknopaiou Nesos in the Roman Period (247).

Chapter six by Martin Stadler treats the "Demotica from Dime: An overview of the Demotic texts found in Dime during the campaigns of 2001-2009" (249-68). He first describes the history of work on Demotic papyri and ostraca from Dime (249-50). In some ways the Demotic material from Soknopaiou Nesos is more impressive than the Greek. Nevertheless, for years these Dime Demotic texts were neglected, due to the very difficult hands in which they are generally written. However, thanks especially to the Dime Project, begun by Karl-Theodor Zauzich, and continued by Sandra Lippert and Maren Schentuleit, many Demotic texts are now available in reliable editions.2 Stadler emphasizes (250) that the excavated texts generally are in much poorer condition than those in museum collections. He lists in his catalogue (251-264) some 73 Demotic papyri, 199 ostraca, and one Demotic inscription upon a naos-shrine. Stadler's provisional analysis of these much destroyed texts reveals they are almost entirely documentary in character; a very few are literary (29, 73) or religious (numbers 51, 64) fragments. They are generally of Roman date. Particularly significant is the oracular question which is edited more fully than the other documents in this volume (382-384; number 60). The ostraca are often name-lists or various kinds of accounts or records. Stadler frequently offers corrections to the readings of S. Pernigotti, "Ostraka demotici da Soknopaiou Nesos," Richerche di Egittologia e di Antichità Copte 10 (2008), pp. 51-72. That Demotic inscription on a naos of the god Soknopaios appears to record the names of the priests who contributed to the costs of the shrine (264). As Stadler observes, such inscriptions honoring private donors are generally in Greek, not Demotic Egyptian. In his detailed section on the "Significance of the recently excavated Demotica" (264-67), Stadler emphasizes how the 199 new ostraca complement the 230 Dime ostraca from old museum collections published by Lippert and Schentuleit. About 130 of these new ostraca are name-lists. There has been some speculation about the meaning of these texts. Are they lists for election to priestly offices? Lippert and Schentuleit suggest that they are "lots," "through which the persons were selected for specific offices" (265). Here Stadler observes that the excavated ostraca may help to illuminate the significance of the name-lists, because we now know where they were found. The Demotic texts can also clarify the architecture and decoration of the temple, a point understandably often missed by non-specialists. Art historians and scholars of Egyptian Religion should certainly read closely Stadler's later chapter (379-86) entitled "Interpreting the Architecture of the Temenos: Demotic Papyri and the Cult in Soknopaiou Nesos."

Angela Cervi's chapter seven deals thoroughly with the many decorative wooden and glass elements discovered in the excavations (269-314). An excellent plan details the find-spots for such objects (270). Particularly interesting are the remarks on P. University College 27934, which contains a plan of a portable wooden shrine (275-278).

Delphine Dixneuf contributes chapter eight on the ceramics from Dime (315-361); the material ranges from the Hellenistic through early Arab period (315). Clementina Caputo presents the nineteen fragments of terracottas in chapter nine (363-375). She dates most of these to the Roman Period (363).

Capasso and Davoli have assembled a first-rate team of scholars representing a host of specialties and methodologies. Soknopaiou Nesos Project I is a major contribution to the study of one of the most significant Graeco-Roman sites. It is to be hoped that their project may continue!


1.   See, e.g. S. Lippert and M. Schentuleit (eds.), Graeco-Roman Fayum Texts and Archaeology. Proceedings of the Third International Fayum Symposion, Freudenstadt, May 29-June 1, 2007 (Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008).
2.   See, e.g., S. Lippert and M. Schentuleit, Demotische Dokumente aus Dime III. Urkunden (Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010).

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