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Wooden Stamps from Tebtunis: Evidence for Local Distribution of Commodities

Caroline Cheung

University of California, Berkeley

Sealing and labeling containers constituted important steps in the distribution of commodities in the ancient world. This paper presents implements for these activities that have been exceptionally preserved in the archaeological record: wooden stamps. In addition to the corpus of c. 26,000 papyri, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt’s 1899/1900 excavations of Tebtunis yielded nearly two thousand artifacts, all of which are currently housed in the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. The lack of systematic recording during the excavation and absence of provenience for the finds resulted in the limited study and publication of only some of the major discoveries. Among the great number of unpublished artifacts are thirteen wooden stamps, recovered from the Roman town, that feature engraved Greek letters and/or pictorial symbols. The stamps are rectangular and all but one have a knob-like handle with a hole drilled through, probably to enable attachment of a string for hanging. Remains of cordage, in fact, are present in one of the stamps. Although the stamps potentially illuminate an important aspect of ancient economic activities and commerce, their abstract texts and symbols and lack of archaeological context have precluded scholarly attention and study.  

This paper presents these wooden stamps from Tebtunis (as well as comparanda) to discuss their role in marking commodities. The few examples of wooden stamps from other sites in Roman Egypt often bear detailed and official information for the wine that was contained in amphorae that the stamps labeled (Nachtergael 2000; Nachtergael 2001; Nachtergael 2003; Denecker and Vandorpe 2007). The engravings on the Tebtunis stamps, on the other hand, are difficult to understand and interpret since they do not seem to provide any explicit information. Although there are Greek letters, the combinations of letters do not spell out any words (e.g., ‘ΑΧ,’ ‘ΠΑΥ,’ and ‘ΕΥΔΑΙ’). Furthermore, some stamps feature letters that are not oriented the same way (e.g., ‘ΠϹ,’ with the sigma facing the opposite direction). The three stamps from the Berkeley Tebtunis corpus that bear both Greek letters and pictorial symbols suggest that stamp engravers did not necessarily privilege either the pictorial symbols or Greek letters; they were concerned with fitting the entire ensemble of letters and symbols onto the face of the stamp. In addition to other published wooden stamps, this paper discusses amphora plaster and mud stoppers, which preserve impressions made by such stamps; these objects are garnering more scholarly interest and feature detailed (and more official) texts as well as abstract texts and/or figural representations (Thomas 2011; Davoli 2005; Thomas and Tomber 2006; Minutoli 2014).

To explore the possible references the stamps are making, this paper also investigates the papyrological record of Tebtunis, and suggests that some of the texts may have been abbreviations for names. For example, ‘ΑΧ’ was probably an abbreviation for Ἀχιλλεύς, a common name in Tebtunis. The paper ultimately argues that the context in which these stamps were likely found (shops in Roman Tebtunis), the abbreviated nature of the texts, and the manner in which the carvings were executed on the stamps suggest that these were ‘branding’ mechanisms for locally, rather than extra-regionally, distributed commodities. Thus, rather than displaying detailed information or fully fleshed-out text, the stamps feature symbols that were readily recognizable to local customers; they shed light on the local (re)distribution of commodities, most likely wine, in Tebtunis during the Roman period.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt (organized by the American Society of Papyrologists)

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