The Jewel Box Mystery Case

This week Kate Cooper, Jamie Wood and I had a very lively session at the John Rylands Library with graduate students from my two Departments, Classics and Ancient History and Religions and Theology, who are collaborating to the exhibition. Jacquie Fortnum and Anne Young of the Library were with us too.

The students were asked to choose from a list of papyri their favourites. That for me was a test for understanding if I have selected the right ones and what kind of texts may interest young people. Actually many of the papyri I like were on their list too.

We will certainly have a choice from a group of petitions from Euhemeria, a village of the Fayum, all dating between 28 and 42 AD that were purchased all together and perhaps come from a public office. This is the translation of P. Ryl. 2 125 that we have renamed ‘The Jewel Box Mystery Case’:

‘To Serapion, chief of police, from Orsenouphis son of Harpaesis, notable of the village of Euhemeria in the division of Themistes. In the month Mesore of the past 14th year of Tiberius Caesar Augustus I was engaged in demolishing some old walls upon my land through the agency of Petesouchus son of Petesouchus, builder; and when I had left home on business concerning my livelihood Petesouchus discovered in the work of demolition certain articles deposited in a little box by my mother as far back as in the 16th year of Augustus, namely a pair of gold ear-rings weighing 4 quarters, a gold crescent weighing 3 quarters, a pair of silver bracelets to the weight of 12 drachmae of unstamped metal, a necklace on which were silver ornaments worth 80 drachmae, and 60 silver drachmae. Putting his workmen and my servants off the scent he had these conveyed to his home by his unmarried daughter, and having rifled the contents aforesaid he threw the box empty into my house; moreover he acknowledges (having found) the box but alleges that it was empty. Wherefore I ask, if it seems good to you, that the accused be brought before you for the consequent punishment. Farewell.

‘Orsenouphis aged 50 years, with a scar on the left forearm.’

Orsenouphis, clearly a member of the village well-off elite, believed in the efficiency of the system, he believed the police would have solved the case. Did the builder steal the jewels and money for his daughter’s dowry? This is what the petition insinuates. But do petitions tell us the truth or just one side of it?

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