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A Further Look at Literacy and Education in Greek and Roman Egypt

Raffaella Cribiore

Following the appearance of William Harris’ Ancient Literacy came Raffaella Cribiore's 1996 Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which focused the papyrological evidence. These two books were the voices of authority and starting points for my life's inquiry into education and schools in Egypt. It is true that when we consider literacy from the point of view of the high achievements of elite sources our judgment can be distorted, but my research brought to light scores of school exercises from all levels that originated not only from Egyptian metropoleis but also from villages. If, as Harris claimed, a network of schools did not exist, where did these exercises and texts come from?

After many years, I am even more convinced that very many Greek schools operated in the ancient world, at all levels, even though we are sometimes unable to identify them. I will consider the evidence from Greek and Roman Egypt, and specifically from an oasis in Upper Egypt, the Dakhla Oasis. This oasis is separated from the Nile Valley by the desert but, as we will see, its inhabitants cared to give their children a strong classical education and employed teachers for this purpose. Several excavations have brought to light school exercises on papyrus and ostraka. One of these, an excavation sponsored by New York University, is concerned with a city called Trimithis (modern Amheida) with remains dating from the pharaonic period to the fourth century AD. Here a Roman school of higher education was discovered with three rooms that show classical poetry and prose written on the walls. A few articles on this school have now been published (see bibliography). In this paper I would like to add to that evidence. Outside of this school, ostraka were found that testify to elementary education being offered, probably in the open air. These are still unpublished and contain alphabets, exercises on the alphabet, and simple drawings.

Education was a concern of the Oasites of Dakhla. More schools were located in the nearby village of Kellis, where there were four smaller shrines built in the Roman period within the temenos of the temple of Tutu. In two of the shrines, there were rooms that had benches all around and where pens, school ostraka, fragments of wooden boards, and elementary school exercises were found. Miniature wooden codices with literary rhetorical texts have also emerged. With the usual hesitation, the editors designated shrine 3 as a scriptorium, that is a room for scribes, but this was unmistakably a school. Moreover, a few documentary papyri testify to the existence of teachers in Kellis. School exercises on ostraka were also found in other parts of the Oasis, for example in the village of Kysis, where only a few houses have been excavated so far (O.Douch.). Kysis was a fort, and the elementary ostraca found there will no doubt increase in number in the future.

In conclusion, the literary and sub-literary findings in the Oasis of Dakhla show that a system of education existed even when the place was remote. More discoveries of schools will take place once archaeologists and scholars know how to identify them.

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Ancient Literacy Reprised

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