"When the mummy of my child reaches you, keep guard until I arrive"
|Image via Egypt Centre|
These are the poignant words found on a wooden label held in the Egypt Centre in Swansea. This simple tabula anisette shaped item, with its 4 holes for attachment, was placed on a mummy as an identification tag.
During Graeco-Roman times (332 BC-AD 395), people who died away from home were usually taken back for burial in their local cemeteries. To make sure that the deceased were identified correctly when they reached home, the sender would put a label around the neck of the mummy - inscribed in Greek or demotic language, or more rarely in hieroglyphics - with the name of the deceased and, sometimes, further information about the person who had died, such as their age or home town. The labels were either made from wood or from stone and, for those who could not afford a proper tomb and were interred in mass graves or simply buried in the desert sand, they may have acted as a replacement for traditional stelae.
This label (accession number W549) has 7 lines of Greek written in ink which has been translated as:
'Hermiysis, [son] of Kollouthos, farewell! Kollouthos to Kallistos: When the mummy of my child reaches you, keep guard until I arrive.'
Kollouthos is apparently sending the embalmed body of his son Hermiysis to someone called Kallistos. The relationship between Kollouthos and Kallistos is not clear: they may have been related, or Kallistos may have been employed in the funeral trade. Alternatively, Kallistos could be a shipping agent or boat captain. The name suggests Greek rather than Egyptian extraction. Kallistos' instructions were to await the arrival of Kollouthos before proceeding with the transport of the body.
Before arriving at the Egypt Centre, the label was in the Henry Wellcome Collection (London). Wellcome purchased the label from the Rev. William MacGregor Collection (Tamworth, Staffordshire) in 1922 via Sotheby's Auction House, London. It was described in the original auction catalogue as being part of Lot 643: ' 'Three others, inscribed in Greek, and a fragment of a wooden tablet, inscribed in Coptic, with original string for hanging.' It was sold to Wellcome for £1 1s . The find site was appears to be from Akhmin, a place where many other wooden mummy labels have been found.
There are thousands of mummy labels in collections around the world which makes them an invaluable census resource for the Ptolemaic and early Roman Period. It is unfortunate however that the accompanying bodies to which the labels were attached have rarely survived or been recorded.
Further Information can be found here:
Piotr Bienkowski, P. and Tooley, A., Gifts of The Nile: Ancient Egyptian Arts and Crafts in Liverpool Museum., 1995., 82; pl.131.
Gee, R. and Gill, D. Journal of Hellenic Studies 1996, 261.
Mueller, D. Three Mummy Labels in the Swansea Wellcome Collection. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 59 (Aug., 1973), pp. 175-180.
Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge. Catalogue of The MacGregor Collection of Egyptian Antiquities, 1922.
Vleeming, S.P. , Peeters, 2011, p. 523.