The texts of the ostraka

The informal texts written on the ostraka are usually documents that give us more information about daily life in the Nile valley. The vast majority of these ostraka with texts were found in a large landfill near Deir El-Medina, the village of workers who excavated tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The percentage of people who knew how to write who lived here was much higher than the rest of the country.

Although it is therefore a fairly select group, it is useful as a reference to understand a little better the everyday life of Ancient Egypt. The first thing that catches the eye is the extensive use that was made of writing to validate the rental and purchase agreements, in order to eventually resolve any disagreement relating to the negotiation. Since the money did not exist and all the accounts were made on the basis of copper deben, it was useful to always specify the prices. If, for example, a person had bought a precious thing – perhaps a small bottle of ointment – in the text its value in deben was specified and the different products of less value were listed, each with its own evaluation in deben, which had been delivered as title. of payment until the requested sum is covered. This excluded the possibility that the buyer or seller would try to get smart later on.

Although everything was written down, it happened that arguments between buyers and sellers were lit. The contenders resorted to the arbitrariness of the courts. In the beginning it was a matter of popular juries made up of villagers, among whom there was certainly a supervisor or someone with tasks of a certain responsibility. Apparently, in Pharaonic Egypt there was no written legal code, but this does not mean that judges, accused and accusers did not know what was right. Everyone was perfectly aware of the concept that guided their lives: the maat. Translated on some occasions as “justice”, it is rather “qullo that is correct”, “what is good” and the judges used to decide. If they were to impose a fine or a punishment, they referred to similar previous sentences. However, if the complaint was not simply a minor theft or a disagreement over a price paid, but rather, for example, for murder or theft of property in a temple, the case was judged by the vizier.

A curious detail of Pharaonic society is that women had as much legal weight as men. We know that the predominant element of society, those who could reach the highest levels of power, both economic and social, were men. This did not prevent women from being equal to them in every sense. As the ideology of the monarchy well demonstrates, the Egyptians conceived the world as formed by two entities, a masculine and a feminine, which had to be in harmony so that everything could work. There is no doubt that the pharaoh was the visible political leader and that he acted as an intermediary between men and gods; but to be able to carry out these tasks adequately, in order to maintain the maat, which was his main duty, he had to be able to count on the presence of the queen at his side, who completed it. Reported to the people, this assumed that the Egyptians had the same social power as men and the legal right to possess property, do business, buy or sell, disinherit ungrateful children or divorce an unfaithful husband.

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