Last summer, the Almighty Trismegistos Overlord dumped a collection of demotic letters from Elephantine on my desk.
The above sentence is most likely highly confusing in a myriad of ways.
a) Demotic letters? I guess everyone knows hieroglyphs, those funny birds and squatting figures found on every possible piece of rock and stone in Egypt. Since not everyone was a gifted smokey-eyed, linnen-wrapped Michelangelo though, a more fluently-written variant of this script soon emerged, called hieratic. Demotic is supposedly an even more cursively evolved, Late and Graeco-Roman variant. I don’t buy it. Those people simply had horrible handwriting. My Auto-correct keeps on insisting that this should be ‘demonic’ by the way. I nod vigorously in agreement each time.
b) Elephantine? A town in Upper Egypt, just downstream of the first Nile cataract. No, there are no elephants there.
c) Upper Egypt – first Nile cataract? Those of you with no / a limited / a normal amount of geographical sense probably have no clue what the catch is here. So let me elaborate: the first cataract is in Nubia, a charming little region located in the Republic of Sudan, ergo: south of Egypt. But then, shouldn’t Upper be, like, up north? No! Why make things simple, if they can also be confusing and disorientating? Actually, there’s a logic behind this: since the Nile flows from south to north, Upper Egypt is the upstream part, and Lower Egypt the downstream part. I’d have voted for Downer Egypt to make more sense, but I was born a century or two too late, I guess.
d) He just dumped those valuable, ancient, brittle papyrus letters on your desk?! No, he did not. In this bits and bytes era, everything is digitalized, of course. But it’s so lame to say: he sent me a fmp12 file with all info on the demotic letters found in Elephantine. Which would also not be true, since I actually just looked them up myself. So basically, all he did was say: Yanne, make me a network, write a paper and put my name on it. I should really join a union.
e) fmp12? Do I have to explain everything?! That’s the extension for a Filemaker file. And before you ask: Filemaker is a database program. There.
f) Almighty? See the end of d).
So, now you’re back on track. That paper. That’s what it’s about here. A couple of years before, TATO had been racking his brain trying to date these papyrological buggers. Unsuccessfully, obviously. Most are stamped ‘399-200 BC’, which for Egypt is pretty accurate actually. Especially since more or less the only clue we’ve got is the handwriting. The dates in these letters are understatedly enigmatic. ‘Year 5’, and if you’re lucky, a month and a day. Year 5 of what? Year 5 of the pharaoh – at least we know that much. What pharaoh? That’s when you can start spinning that roulette wheel. Egyptians started over every time their beloved son of Ra died. So ‘year 5’ could become ‘year 1’ with just a slit of a throat, a drop of poison, or a massive coronary. How did I crack this quizzical nut then? With networks, of course!
First, I tried to identify as many people as possible, since only a few that appear in more than one text had been recognized yet. For this, I created a network linking people that are mentioned in the same text. The dates of these texts were added as node attributes, and for someone that pops up more than once, I chose the most accurate date. This way, when he (no, I’m not going to be politically correct here, since there are hardly any she’s) is connected to people in less accurately dated texts, their dates can be narrowed down. Like this:
|Fig. 1: People mentioned in letter from Elephantine
(nodes colored according to date)
The green nodes are people that appear in texts that are dated to 343 BC. They also appear in other texts dated to 399-200 BC, and so are linked to the people in those texts (black nodes). But since people don’t live 200 years, especially not back then, the dates of those black nodes ( = people, and as a result also the texts in which they are mentioned) can be narrowed down to the fourth century BC.
Next step: check these clusters for individuals that have not yet been identified. Same network, different colors:
|Fig. 2: People mentioned in letters from Elephantine
(nodes colored according to name)
This time, I highlighted the four most common names: Espmetis, Eschnoumpmetis, Esnebonychos and Hartephnachtes. A combination of two or more of these names appear in six different texts. Listing all possible combinations is boring, so never mind that. Let’s just say I was able to reconstruct a nice family tree:
|Fig. 3: Family tree of Es-pa-nty-hut-neter and his offspring
After identifying some more people, I could finally get started with the real deal: finding out under which pharaoh these Egyptians rocked the Bangles’ song. Our Overlord had a hunch, but some form of evidence is always appreciated in our field, and to get this, I took networks to a whole new level: that of three-mode graphs.
Remember two-mode networks? Those things that combine two different types of nodes? Like people attending events? Or what we use a lot: people appearing in texts (that’s actually what I started from to generate the above network of people linked through texts)? Well, in a three-mode network, you just add a third type of node. In our case: those understatedly enigmatic dates – regnal years – mentioned in the texts.
By linking texts to year numbers on the one hand, and the people mentioned in those texts on the other, strings of people-in-texts-appointed-to-a-year-in-which-another-text-was-written-where-yet-other-people-are-mentioned are created, and you can trace documents and people chronologically. This is what you get for the Elephantine letters:
|Fig. 4: Three-mode network of the Elephantine letters (giant component)
red = year; blue = text; green = person
TATO believed that most of these texts should be dated around the middle of the fourth century BC, when the very last of the Egyptian pharaohs, Nectanebo II, was overthrown by the Persian king Artaxerxes III, after 19 years of rule. Now remember that understatedly enigmatic dating system with those pharaoh years? Well, the year 19 is attested in some letters, but there was another king, who ruled some 100 years later, who ruled even longer. And since the letters can be assigned to anywhere between 399 and 200 BC, year 19 could refer to either one. What to do then? One option is eeny meeny miny moe. Unfortunately, for many historians, this does not count as evidence, as fun as it is to catch a tiger’s toe. Another way is to see if year 19 can be linked to year 1. Because when Artaxerxes came and kicked Nectanebo’s ass and started prancing in front of the mirror with his fancy serpentine headdress, the dating system changed back to year 1. And if these two are linked, the other ruler (yeah, yeah, you got me, I can’t remember who it was…) can be excluded. You follow?
And ta-da! Guess what? I got pretty close. TM 46477 was written in year 19; it mentions Eschnoumpmetis son of Esnebonychos. He’s also mentioned in TM 46451, together with Nepherpres. This guy in turn also appears in TM 46615, together with Eschnoumpmetis, who pops up in TM 46443 which was written in year 1. I can hear everyone furrowing their eyebrows now: ain’t that kind of stretched?! Well, no actually, it’s not. You see, that’s the thing about a three-mode network: since you’ve got three different entities, it takes a minimum of four hops to get from one year to another. So eight hops is the next step. What would be a stretch is if I’d identify the Eschnoumpmetis of TM 46615 and TM 46443 with Eschnoumpmetis son of Esnebonychos. That way, we could skip over Nepherpres, and actually get from year 19 to year 1 in four hops. But there are at least two other guys called Eschnoumpmetis in this period: a son of Chnoummachis and a son of Psammetichos, so I can’t. I’m sorry, but I just can’t. It would ruin my scientific, historical, ethic and networky integrity.
a) keep in mind that there is a possibility that they were the same;
b) I whipped up some form of evidence, wrote a paper about it, and earned myself a trip to Barcelona to present it;
c) the paper’s published, and my CV looks a lot better.