Egyptian Grape Guard's Ancient Contract Decoded

computer science, wine making
Ripe pinot noir grapes. (Image credit: Anna M. Campbell at Elk Cove Vineyards)

An ancient labor contract by a guard hired to protect a vineyard in ancient Egypt has been deciphered. Scrawled in Greek on a piece of dark brown papyrus, the document dates back to the 4th century A.D., a new research paper claims.

Guarding vineyards in Egypt more than 1,600 years ago was no easy task. Other ancient sources describe grape-seeking thieves who violently beat watchmen in pursuit of the fruits ripe for winemaking. Crime could be especially high from July to September, the time of the harvest, writes Kyle Helms, a classics doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati.

Grape thefts even found their way into poetry. A verse by the Roman poet Catullus says a married woman "must be watched more carefully than the darkest grapes."

The newly translated papyrus, described in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, had been sitting in a collection at the University of Michigan for nearly a century. The fragile document contains large, cursive script in a style of handwriting consistent with the 4th century A.D. At the time, the Roman Empire was in control of Egypt.

According to Helms' translation, the ancient text reads: "I agree that I have made a contract with you on the condition that I guard your property, a vineyard near the village Panoouei, from the present day until vintage and transport, so that there be no negligence, and on the condition that I receive in return for pay for all of the aforementioned time …"

Sadly that's where the contract cuts off. It remains a mystery how much the guard was paid. This contract also contains the first mention of a city called Panoouei, Helms wrote. It is not clear where ancient village was, especially since vineyards were found from the Delta in the north to El­ephantine, an ancient city several hundred miles south along the Nile.

Ancient fragments of papyrus can provide rare snapshots into everyday Egyptian life. For example, a newly translated letter reveals the complaints of an Egyptian solider posted in modern-day Hungary 1,800 years ago. In an even older find, archaeologists recently discovered the 4,500-year-old diary of an official who helped to lead the construction of the Great Pyramid.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.