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Located in the Libyan desert, 200 kilometres from the Nile Valley, the Kharga oasis stretches along a narrow depression that runs for 160 km. At its southern end, the Tell Douch zone has been excavated during campaigns undertaken by the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale since 1976 (IFAO).
From 1994, the team led by the late lamented Michel Wuttmann concentrated its research on the Ain Manawir site in order to excavate the remains of the village area that stood there in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The land farmed by this community was irrigated by means of deep drainage galeries that could capture a perched water table held prisoner in the sandstone hill located south of the inhabited area.
map of Egypt © Achemenet / 2014
map of the Kharga oasis © IFAO / 2001
Excavation of the temple (MT sector) and the different dwelling sectors (MMA and MMB) and prospection conducted on the neighbouring site of Ain Ziyada (ZMA) have together revealed several hundred ostraca written in demotic script. Entrusted to Michel Chauveau (EPHE–IVe section), assisted by Damien Agut-Labordère (Collège de France then CNRS-ArScAn), the publication enabled an ensemble of 461 texts on ostraca (pottery shards) to be transliterated and translated.
These documents primarily concern the administration of the temple and private business. This documentary ensemble is exceptional for Egypt, both in terms of size – 460 documents are in a sufficiently satisfactory state to be published – and because it was discovered in a context.
The Ain Manawir ostraca (O.Man.) shed light on an aspect of ancient Egyptian society that has only been very scantily documented: the life of a farming community with relative autonomy from the royal powers. It seemed to be entirely organised around the local temple devoted to “Osiris-iou” (a variant of Osiris) and other religious institutions of the oasis (the Temple dedicated to Amun of Hibis or the temple at Qasr-el-Guheita).
Another particularity of this documentation makes it even more important for the rural history of Persian Egypt: while the ostraca discovered in the Nile Valley or at other oasis sites contain only short texts destined to be rapidly discarded (such as receipts or rough accounting documents), the Ain Manawir ostraca present the particularity of containing a large number of private acts (marriage and divorce decrees, acts of sale or rental); due to their importance, these were ordinarily written on papyrus. The life of certain local families and the itineraries of several individuals are therefore documented with rather exceptional precision.
The village community that lived at Ain Manawir in Persian times is without doubt one of the best known in the long Pharaonic history.
Ain Manawir ostraca O.Man. 5268: marriage decree
Damien Agut-Labordère (CNRS-ArScAn) / March 2014