The texts found at Kellis in the Dakhleh Oasis

During the 1990's, a team from Monash University, Melbourne, excavated the ruins in Egypt's Western Desert, at the Dakhleh Oasis.  The modern name for the site is Ismant el-Kharab (Ismant the Ruined), which in ancient times was a town named Kellis, and has not been built over since.  The site proved to contain an pagan temple of Tutu, Neith and Tapshay, and two church-like buildings, one of which may have been a Manichaean temple.  

The find included a small number of literary texts.  These are three previously lost orations by Isocrates, more or less complete in a wooden codex: the Ad Demonicum; Ad Nicoclem, and the Nicocles; some of the Epistles of Mani, and a fragment of Homer.

A large number of non-literary texts were found, consisting of over 2,000 texts, mainly from the fourth century. No text was found dated later than 392. The texts are written on all kinds of material: papyrus, potsherds, wooden boards, linen; even a clay tablet carrying a Greek text (probably the first of its kind preserved from 1000 years of Graeco-Roman presence in Egypt); there are also some inscriptions from the buildings, including a text from the reign of Nero (AD. 54-68) which seems to be the earliest text from the site. The texts are mainly in Greek and Coptic but there is also some textual material in Demotic, Syriac and Latin. 

There were numerous Christian texts including an LXX Psalms text and portions of the New Testament in Coptic, although no portions of the NT in Greek have been found so far.  There are Manichaean texts, showing that a Manichaean community was present at Kellis from at least the mid-fourth century.

In Shrine III in the Main Temple, a small fragment of a wooden board preserves verses 294-7 of chapter XII of Homer's Iliad. In Shrine II, a mythological ostrakon contains a unique text relating the legend of Cygnes, son of Poseidon; unfortunately the inscription on one side is badly preserved which makes translation difficult.  Other than the Isocrates Codex, these are the only literary texts which have been found at Kellis.

The Codices

Two intact wooden codices were found in sand above the floor of the kitchen of House 2.

The Isocrates codex: The first of these is known as the Isocrates Codex and may have been written at the same time as the account book below (so 360-380 AD).  This contains three previously lost orations by the 4th century BC Athenian orator Isocrates, on the subject of kingship; the Ad Demonicum; Ad Nicoclem, and the Nicocles.  Of the 60 orations in his name available in Roman times, only 21 were transmitted to us by ancient and medieval scribes, as well as nine letters in his name, of which the authenticity of four have been questioned. The earliest medieval manuscripts of his works are 6 centuries later.

It was discovered lying in the sand on the floor of a house excavated in Kellis and consisted of nine wooden boards tied together with string, inscribed in Greek on both sides of each board. Members of the project believe that it was probably the copy of a local schoolmaster as the general quality of the handwriting and the spelling errors make it unlikely that it was owned by a refined scholar. Moreover the orations contained in the codex were popular for school reading in antiquity.

The other is the "Kellis Agricultural Account Book." This comprises eight boards inscribed upon both sides. It contains accounts kept by the manager of an agricultural estate in Dakhleh which was owned by a couple from the city of Hibis in Khargeh Oasis to the east of Dakhleh. Records were kept of produce collected from the tenants and any amounts which they owed. The records deal with a four year period in either in the mid-360s or 370s.  Two boards are shown in the picture below; at the top of the board on the left are three Greek letters which may indicate that the manager was Christian.  The tablets contain the most extensive and well-preserved set of accounts for an agricultural entity to survive from the 4th century AD. The accounts  document the daily life of an agricultural estate over a period of five years. Information on crops, measures, prices and valuation, tenants and religious institutions can be gleaned from the account book.

Many more documents were found in House 3.  The excavators reported:

"House 3 is the largest of a block of three houses excavated on the northern edge of Area A; work in this house was conducted in 1991 and 1992. From the outset fragments of inscribed papyrus were found, even fairly high in the sand fill. However, when the floors were reached thousand of fragments were found, some in distinct clusters associated with broken ceramic vessels in which they had been stored. The floors were also covered with the remains of a wide variety of domestic items, including furniture, baskets, pottery and glass vessels, clothing, jewellery and coins. This represents material which the occupants no longer needed at the time they abandoned the house or which they could not retrieve after the abandonment. They clearly valued the wood which had been used in the construction of the house for all of the doors and door frames, and many of the shelves, were removed for reuse elsewhere. 

"The texts written in Greek inform us that several generations of the family of Pamour son of Psais lived in House 3, while of those in Coptic many relate to the family of Makarios. Both groups of documents were found within the same contexts and the two families were obviously closely connected if not related. The Coptic texts are mostly private letters and religious documents while the Greek ones are dominated by administrative and economic texts. Dated Greek texts and coins show that this house was occupied from the late third century until the late fourth century. The dated texts cover the period 299 - 389 and the coins cover approximately the same time span.

For literary texts, house 3 contained the following:


Fragments from several inscriptions written upon papyrus were found in the Main Temple. One may have concerned the temple itself, though the poor state of preservation makes their translation difficult. Also in demotic from the temple is a short inscription upon a pedestal mentioning Tutu which carries the remains of a Greek inscription written during the reign of Nero (54-68), and a grafitto mentioning the god Amun-nakht who was worshipped in a temple in the east of Dakhleh.


Online exhibition: From the Sands of The Sahara Ancient Kellis and Its Texts: Monash University Excavations at Ismant el-Kharab, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt. At one time this included: ("") Exhibition Catalogue, and ("") An Exhibition of Photographs from the Department of Classics and Archaeology and Material from the Monash University Library Rare Books Collection 30 July - 2 October 1998.  These two pages with copious photographs are a splendid example to how to publicise work; these notes are mainly derived from this material.    

The Kellis Isocrates Codex, ed. by K.A. Worp & A. Rijksbaron, with an introductory chapter by J.L. Sharpe III. Oxford, Oxbow 1997 (= Dakhleh Oasis Project Monograph 5/Oxbow Monograph 88). 293 pp., [35] plates. GBP 45.00. ISBN 1 900188 43 0. From the Contents:

Note on Editorial Procedure
I: Codicological Observations, by J.L. Sharpe III
II: The Discovery, Date and Purpose of the Codex
III: Analysis of Writing errors in the Codex
IV: List of Manuscript and Papyrus Sigla
Excursus: two Ad Demonicum Papyri Re-united
V: Texts: The Ad Demonicum; Ad Nicoclem, Nicocles
VI: The Codex and the Textual Transmission of Isocrates
VII: A Tabular Comparison of Variant Readings
VIII: Commentary on Selected Passages
IX: Hiatus in the Codex
Appendices: Paragraphoi in the Codex, NICOCLES
Word order with *nomizein*

K.A. Worp said in a ("") post online: "A number of first text publications --edited by various scholars coming from Australia, Holland, and the U.S.A.-- have appeared already in the meantime, most notably 4 volumes of `P.Kellis' (vol. I [mainly Greek, documentary texts]: 1995; vol. II [literary texts in Coptic, Greek, and Syriac]: 1996; vols III [the famous Kellis Isocrates Codex] and IV [the equally famous Kellis Agricultural Account Book]: 1997; all published by Oxbow, Oxford); furthermore, there are various articles, i.e. in the Zeitschrift fuer Papyrologie & Epigraphik (Cologne), in Orientalia (Louvain) and [forthcoming] in Mnemosyne (Leiden). For a recent listing of publications of texts from Kellis see ZPE 117 (1997) 139 fn. 2; more texts will become available, it is hoped, already in the course of this year (1998) and later." 

The Kellis Agricultural Account Book, ed. by Roger S. Bagnall.252p, figs, 20 plates (Oxbow Monograph 92/Dakhleh Oasis Project Monograph 7, 1997) Hardback. GB £45.00 

Kellis Literary Texts Volume 1, edited by Iain Gardner. This volume publishes a first selection of Manichaean and other religious texts found so far at Kellis with descriptions, notes, transcriptions, translations and photographs. The introductory chapter discusses the Coptic Manichaean texts as literary and religious products with particular reference to their close links to the codices said to have come from Medinet Madi; the commentaries discuss details of codicology, identification and content. There are 16 Coptic texts, 4 Syriac and 4 Greek. 240p with 46 plates (Oxbow Monograph 69/Dakhleh Oasis Project Monograph 4, 1997) Hardback. GB £35.00 

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse. Corrections and additions are very welcome.

This page has been online since 17th September 2005

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