What is the Wooden Spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we celebrate a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what?
Each article will bring amusing stories, unwelcome additions, surprising annotations, damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar.’ Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at: email@example.com but remember – we’re here to celebrate the weird and wonderful, not insult it!
You may be thinking yes, you wouldn’t expect to see a scrap of papyrus in the collections of the University library, but it is historic writing material, and does appear to contain text. That’s not out of place in a library. You may be thinking ‘this isn’t that peculiar’ and ponder why it is this month’s ‘wooden spoon.’ There’s something up with this papyrus, and unless you can read Ancient Greek, you probably won’t know what.
Found in an ancient rubbish dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (modern day: el-Bahnasa), this scrap of papyrus was among thousands well preserved by the desert conditions. The dumps were excavated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by papyrologists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, and the Egyptian Exploration Fund donated 18 of these fragments to the University of Edinburgh in 1914. The texts uncovered range from lost poetic works to early biblical stories, ranging in date from the 3rd century BCE to the Muslim Conquests of Egypt in 640 CE.
Most of the papyri were written in Greek (including our ‘wooden spoon’), but other languages found include Egyptian hieroglyphics, Coptic, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic, testament to the multiculturalism of Egypt in antiquity. With over half a million fragments found, it is estimated that only 2% of the texts have been studied, translated, and catalogued. But what about our ‘wooden spoon’? Luckily for us, this piece of papyri is numbered 309 in the 2nd volume of Oxyrhynchus papyri (with the 86th volume released last November!).
So, what does it say? Is it an ancient curse? A lost verse of Sappho? What makes papyrus scrap P.Oxy CCCIX the ‘wooden spoon’ of the month is its unsuspectingly modern subject: it is a two-millennia-old tax receipt.
The papyrus lists the various amounts of money, measured in drachmae and obols, a man called Thoönios paid in tax during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, giving the manuscript a precise date of 17-19 CE. While taxation had existed in Egypt for thousands of years, the start of Roman rule in 30 BCE led to complex developments in taxation. While Thoönios paid in cash, taxes could also be paid in kind, and appointed officials oversaw the implementation and collection of the deluge of small taxes an individual in Roman Egypt could owe. Perhaps their complexity was why Thoönios had to write them down.
From ancient rubbish dump to the Centre for Research Collections in the University of Edinburgh, our 2000-year-old ‘wooden spoon’ of the month reminds us that our tax self-assessment deadline has just passed, and it is eternally important to write these things down.
By Izzy Nendick