Wilbour Papyrus

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The Wilbour Papyrus is a papyrus purchased by the New York journalist Charles Edwin Wilbour from a farmer when he visited the island of Elephantine near Aswan in 1893. There he purchased seventeen papyri from a local farmer. He did not realize the importance of his find and when he died in a hotel in Paris his belongings, including the papyri (among these the Brooklyn Papyrus and the Elephantine Papyri), were put in storage by the hotel and not returned to his family for nearly half a century. At the request of his widow, they were donated to the Brooklyn Museum.

Papyrus Writing and painting implement

Papyrus is a material similar to thick paper that was used in ancient times as a writing surface. It was made from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge. Papyrus can also refer to a document written on sheets of such material, joined together side by side and rolled up into a scroll, an early form of a book.

Charles Edwin Wilbour American egyptologist

Charles Edwin Wilbour was an American journalist and Egyptologist. He was one of the discoverers of the Elephantine Papyri. He produced the first English translation of Les Misérables.

Elephantine Island in the Nile

Elephantine ( EL-i-fan-TY-nee, -⁠TEE-; Ancient Egyptian: ꜣbw; Egyptian Arabic: جزيرة الفنتين‎, translit. Gazīrat il-Fantīn; Greek: Ἐλεφαντίνη; Coptic: is an island on the Nile, forming part of the city of Aswan in Upper Egypt. There are archaeological sites on the island.

The Wilbour Papyrus is to ancient Egypt what the census bureau is to us today. It was translated by Alan Gardiner. Most of the first section of the papyrus was lost due to decomposition. The better preserved information begins in section two which starts off with “year 4, [second month of the Inundation-season], day 15 to day 20, making six days, assessment made by (unknown)”. The name of the ruling king at the time was never mentioned but it is believed it was written during the time of Ramesses V. The papyrus is a document that is broken up into two parts, text A and text B. It is roughly 33 ft in length, contains 127 columns and over 5,200 lines. It has information on about 95 miles of land and is written by more than one scribe.

Although it is not the largest papyrus ever found, it is the largest in its class. It also contains more information than other papyri which succeed it in size. It is the largest non-funerary papyrus known to ancient Egypt. Even though at this point there has been no evidence of one like it, it is hard to believe the ancient Egyptians did not keep similar documentation. It is possible there was several like this one but was not preserved over the years. This particular papyrus has various information on the late Ramsessid period. This information includes but is not limited to taxation, information about late Ramessid administrative practices, temple economy, population, occupations and land donated to deities.

There are many theories as to what the original purpose of the papyrus was. Some believe the papyrus could be a copy of the “chief taxing master” which was responsible for temple finance. Others speculate it was the “jpw-register" of Amun. No matter what the original purpose was, it is an extremely informative document that gives us an unusual amount of insight on the government during the time of ancient Egypt.

"Occupations and Landowners"

According to the papyrus the most common occupations encountered were priests, military men, “ladies,” herdsmen, stable-masters, farmers, and scribes. Surprisingly enough the papyrus also lists a good amount of foreigners in its population. It mostly lists Libyans and Near Easterners, it is possible they were foreign mercenaries who had descendants who settled on farmland in which they obtained for serving in the military. In some cases we see if the person who owned the land had deceased. It would then say the land is being cultivated by the sons or daughters.


Even though the papyrus gives us specific information, there is still room for interpretation. The papyrus breaks the land up into four different parts. These parts are known as m-drt, ihwty, rowdy, rmnyt. One word you see continuously debated is the translation of “ihwty”. There is a few different thoughts as to what “ihwty” actually translates to. Many believe it means “tenant farmer”. Other thoughts of the meaning are “cultivator” or “field laborer”.

M-drt is translated to “split small holder”. A split small holder is a plot of land that is owned by more than one cultivator or tenant farmer. These plots are generally owned by the lower or middle class. As Sally Katary wrote in “Labour on smallholdings in the New Kingdom”, there are roughly 2,245 cultivated plots. Sally tries to break down 93 plots that are mentioned as being m-drt. She bases her number of cultivators needed for each plot off of the size of the plot. She also uses information on how many split plots are owned by the smallholder and the location of the multiple plots owned by the smallholder. By going off of the towns mentioned in both text A and B in the papyrus, we are able to identify locations of the plots. Although we have a vague idea of the locations they have not been able to be completely identified. However, it is possible these locations reveal the hierarchies of the towns and villages exposing the agricultural organization. It is also believed the plots lay across the flood plain, from the Nile banks to the desert edge and along the Bahr Yusuf.


In some cases, the private processor would pay a fixed rate. It is not certain if this rate was paid as a tax fee or as a management fee to the temple. It is possible it went to the temple if the plot was situated on temple land. Taxes were also taken in the form of goods. The larger lots that were worked by field workers were also supervised and paid taxes by turning over 30 percent of their harvest.

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