In unearthing hundreds of dwellings at Karanis the excavators took care to preserve the integrity of each house and its contents. Many of the furnishings, however, had already been removed by the occupants themselves when they abandoned the town. Yet those which were left behind, when viewed in conjunction with official documents and personal letters of the homeowners, provide a vivid impression of the domestic concerns of the average household at Karanis in Roman times.
The multi-storied houses of Karanis were sturdy and unpretentious, built to suit the needs of rural families who labored to provide for themselves the basic necessities of life. They were grouped in blocks, or insulae, which often grew by a process of accretion, with the result that many streets tended to meander.1 Although there were two broad main roads running north and south through the town, the other streets, which were narrow, would frequently come to a dead end or be obstructed by building extensions. Within each block, houses shared party walls and occasionally a courtyard, but otherwise they were independent, self-sufficient structures.2 Throughout the entire history of the town, these houses were of a consistently functional design. Underground rooms were used for storage while an open-air courtyard on the ground floor was the focus of much of the domestic activity. Other rooms, on the ground level and on upper stories, were arranged around a continuous stairway which connected all of the floors.3
The multi-storied construction was sometimes necessitated by the rapid accumulation of sand blown in from the desert during wind storms and of debris from the routines of daily life. When this occurred, the level of the streets would rise and the lower stories of the houses would be abandoned. Upper floors would be salvaged and a new house constructed on top of the old. Sometimes only the floors of the rooms on the street level would be raised and new windows and doorways constructed at higher levels.4 Constant alteration of standing structures occurred simultaneously with the building of new ones, so that houses built in different periods stood side by side.
Although the houses were structurally self-contained, the papyri indicate that it was common for a person to own just a fraction of a house.5 Multiple ownership usually resulted from the fact that children inherited their father's property, but sometimes their fractions of the family property were sold to other individuals. A census declaration from Karanis dating from AD 189, shows that these arrangements could become exceedingly complicated: !belong to the persons whose interest I represent, to Tasoucharion, whose father is unknown, her mother being Sarapias, an Antinoite, the mother of the persons named below, a house and courtyard and a third share of another house in the village, and to Gaia Apolinaria and Gemellus Horion, her children, Antinoites, in common and equally, a house and two courtyards formerly the property of Valeria Diodora and a third share of two houses and two courtyards, and elsewhere a half share of a house and courtyard and of another courtyard, and elsewhere a house and courtyard, and two courtyards formerly the property of Gains Longinus Apolinarius, veteran, and a house and courtyard formerly the property of Ptolemais, and elsewhere a third share of a house and courtyard, which I declare for the house by house registration of the past 28th year....6
The need for adequate space to accommodate entire families must have led to a judicious regard for the cost of building materials and common sense in putting those materials to use. Apart from instances of practical stone was rarely used. Although easy to find in the outcroppings to the north and east of the town, the expense of hauling it overland may well have proved prohibitive. It was used with some regularity only for the exterior stairs, leading from the street to the doorway or from the house into the courtyard, and occasionally it was also employed in foundations and underground rooms. Sometimes it was inserted along the lower portions of exterior walls that faced the street to prevent them from being damaged by passing traffic.7 The walls themselves, however were built of economical mud-brick, which would have been manufactured nearby.8 In order to prevent the walk of the house frona cracking, most builders in Karanis employed a novel technique of bricklaying. On the interior of the house, bricks were set in horizontal courses, but on the exterior they were bedded in a concave foundation. This method caused the outer walls to appear to sag, but cracks did not develop because none of the horizontal and vertical seams continued through the thickness of the walls.9
The wide extent of irrigation allowed for the planting of trees such as sycamore, palm and acacia, which, in addition to providing welcome shade, were also used for house construction. In many houses roughly shaped tree trunks were inserted at various intervals between the course of brick so that irregular projections of the sawn-off branches would prevent the bricks from shifting position. Flat roofs, ceilings, and floors were generally built of closely spaced rafters made of large limbs of trees.10 (underground rooms of the house, however, were usually vaulted or domed. )Wood was also used extensively for windows, doorways, cupboards and as corner reinforcements on the exteriors of buildings instead of stone. The framework for a window was very simple. Wooden planks were set into the wall on all four sides of a rectangular opening, and horizontal or vertical planks were placed across. Apparently the only function of these windows was to admit light and air, for they were too small and too high on the walls (just below the ceilings )to provide a view. Because their high position also ensured privacy, there was little necessity for devices to close them. In all of Karanis only two windows were found with shutters attached. Sometimes, however, the openings between the bars were blocked with rolled up fabric or baskets.11
By contrast to the often crudely constructed windows, doorframes were usually fitted with well-tooled joints, and high standards of craftsmanship were lavished upon the doors themselves. One well-preserved door has recessed panels framed by precisely cut moldings. Interestingly, the side that faced the street is more carefully worked. As all doors in the houses of Karanis, this one turned on pivots that fit into sockets in the threshold and lintel of the frame.12 Outer doors were provided with sliding wooden bolts or locks, a variety of which were found.
Heavy, bolted doors along with high, barred windows provided a considerable degree of security for the homeowners, their families and their possessions. Indeed, it seems that many people took a certain pride in the decoration and furnishing of the interiors of their homes. Frequently, interior walls were plastered and covered with a dark wash over which white lines were painted along the horizontal seams between the courses of brick.13 On these walls no doubt there were cloth hangings; and in wealthier residences, frescoes of religious subjects were also found. The furnishings that were found attest that a considerable measure of comfort and convenience was sought. Mats, and possibly cushions, covered parts of the floor and there were wooden stools, tables, beds, storage boxes and chests, each of a functional, and often aesthetically pleasing, design.
Traditionally in Egypt, stools rather than chairs were the most common form of seat.14 In fact, in Dynastic times chairs were regarded as symbols of status and honor and would not have been part of the average domestic assemblage.15 The only chair found at Karanis was one in miniature - a child's toy; but it may give an idea of the type of chair that would have graced homes of the well-to-do. Stools, on the other hand, were found in abundance. Usually their round seats were supported by three legs which, in the finer examples, had been turned on a lathe. The three-legged design, common in antiquity, was the most practical for use on the uneven surfaces of a mud-brick or mat-covered floor, since the balance could be more easily adjusted on three legs than on four.16 Most of the tables found during the excavations are also of this sturdy design. These round topped, three-legged tables and stools reflect the influence of Greek and Roman traditions of furniture making rather than that of the ancient Egyptians, which favored tables of rectangular form.17 Also, in contrast to lightweight, portable Egyptian tables, the tables found at Karanis are rather large and heavy, following the Roman preference for substantial pieces that served as relatively stationary stands.18 Lathe-turned legs are another sign of Graeco-Roman influence, for the lathe was a Greek invention of the seventh century BC.19
How much of the furniture found at Karanis was actually made there is hard to say. No elaborate tools, like lathes, were discoverer but it is possible that such equipment would not have been abandoned. On the other hand, finely worked furniture may have been imported or made by itinerant craftsmen who traveled with the tools of their trade. That furniture was imported at least on occasion is proven by a letter from a young soldier to his father in Karanis. Among the many things he writes of sending is a wooden bed of which, however, only the frame was to reach its destination. The letter reads, in part: "have sent you, father, by Martialis a bag sewn together, in which you have two mantles, two capes, two linen towels, two sacks, and a wooden bed. I had bought the last together with a mattress and a pillow, and while I was lying ill on the ship they were stolen from me ...."20
The number of wooden reading stands found in the excavations indicates that literacy, while by no means universal, had been attained by more than a few. In fact the same letter in which the army boy announces that he is shipping clothing and a bed to his father also lists "papyrus rolls for school use, ink inside the papyrus, [and] five pens,"among the items being sent. Clearly, supplies for teaching children to read and write were in demand.21 The majority of stands are simply ornamented with incised grooves.
In the dark rooms of the houses light was provided for reading by various kinds of lamps. Conical glass lamps were probably set into tripod holders or suspended on ropes or chains.22 These lamps, many of which were found at Karanis, would have been filled entirely with oil or with water covered by a thin layer of oil. When ignited the oil would have given a muted but adequate light. A less fragile and, perhaps therefore, more common type of oil lamp was made of terracotta.23 A handle was provided on one end and a wick made of plant fibers or rolled up cloth projected from a hole at the other. These lamps were designed to sit on a flat surface and could easily be moved about. Often they were placed in terracotta lanterns which hung on ropes, probably from pegs in the walls. The opening in the lantern directed the light from the small lamp while simultaneously acting as a shade. In a number of homes small wall niches, blackened by smoke, evidently had also served as lamp holders. 24
There were no closets in the houses of Karanis, but storage was provided in other ways. Household goods such as pottery and glass tableware were placed in niches recessed in the wall, just below the window, or set into spaces below the stairway.25 Often the niches were furnished with shelves and occasionally with mud-plaster mouldings along the edge of the sill to prevent objects from rolling out.26 An assemblage of objects found on a window ledge in a house of the second century AD gives some idea of what the contents of a typical cupboard might have been. Along with a pottery bowl, there were six pieces of glass, two baskets, several weaving implements, a terracotta lamp, a stirring stick, and two combs.27
Chests and boxes in a wide assortment of shapes, sizes and materials provided another means of storing goods. These were often made of variously woven reeds and rushes, but wood was also common, and for small containers bone, and even ebony, was used. The simplest boxes resembled crates. One, which contained a number of pieces of the red slip tableware imputed from Roman Africa, may have been the same box in which the pottery had been shipped. Nicely crafted and decorated chests must have been intended for the most treasured of possessions, such as imported cut glass, thin-walled pottery, or items of finely woven cloth, while diminutive versions, some of which were fitted with hinged lids, latches and locks, would have held jewelry and other small valuables.28 Often the interiors of the large as well as small containers were intricately subdivided for organizing the items to be stored.29 Little baskets and boxes with no provision for securing the lids probably held more ordinary items such as toilette and cosmetic articles - hairpins, combs, kohl jars, and kohl sticks.30 The use of kohl, a type of black eye paint, had been common in Egypt since Predynastic times. Originally its purpose was to ward off insects and infection,31 and it was worn by men as well as women. The sticks with which it was applied were often delicately ornamented. The same was true of hairpins, a number of which found at Karanis were carved at one end with a hand holding a ball.32 Combs, too, were often intricately incised with geometric or figural designs.33
At Karanis many of the traditional crafts such as basketry, weaving and carpentry were plied in the home. The scene of much of this activity was the courtyard of the house. Mats and baskets, which were found in virtually every dwelling, were woven to fulfill a variety of needs.34 Items of basketry, for example, were not only used for storing household accessories but also as containers for dry foods and as sieves for sifting granular materials and straining beer. Other practical objects, such as pot stands and brooms, were aIso made of reeds and rushes. The typical broom had a rope rather than a long stick for a handle, probably intended for hanging on a courtyard wall.35
Cloth for domestic use was also made at home. The combing of the raw fibers to align them for spinning might well have been relegated to the outdoors, but the spinning of the thread could have been done almost anywhere within the house. The spindles and whorls of all sizes indicate that a variety of thread was produced from coarse to fine. Although no looms were found, some parts of them, such as heddles, along with comb and pin beaters attest to the weaving that was done in the home. Scissors and needles of various sizes were put to use in making hangings and pillow covers as well as most of the family's garments. Yet despite the ability to weave and sew, the average penon's wardrobe was probably quite small. A letter from the second century AD from a young man stationed in Alexandria to his father in Karanis suggests as much: "I ask and beg you, father, for I have no one dear to me except you, after I the gods, to send to me by Valerius ... a cloak, and a girdled tunic, together with my trousers, so that I may have them, since I wore out my tunic before I entered the service...."36
Another commonly practiced craft was that of carpentry. Finds of mallets, axes, augurs, drills, plumb bobs and a measuring stick confirm that homeowners were equipped to handle minor remodeling and repairs.37 It is likely, in fact, that many of the simpler furnishings and pieces of household equipment were made at home. Some tools, however, might have served purposes other than those of the carpenter. Mallets, for example, might have been used for pounding flax to prepare it for spinning.38 Drills, too, could have been adapted for purposes other than boring holes into wood. Two drill stocks found at Karanis were designed to hold different types of bits, including wooden pegs for starting fires.39
Ovens, grain bins, millstones and mortars, along with cooking pots and jars for the storage of foods show that the courtyard also served as the kitchen of the house. The baking of bread involved the milling of the coarse grain which was stored in rectangular bins or in large vessels (pithoi) sunk into the ground. Several kinds of mortars and grinding stones were used to convert grain into flour, but a traditional Egyptian device known as the Theban mill was also used. The Theban mill was designed so that one person could provide the amount of flour needed by an average household for a single day.40 Those found at Karanis were attached to bases that stood at a comfortable waist-height.41 That this piece of equipment was regarded as having some value is shown by a receipt of sale:
..Thatres ... acknowledges to Pnepheros ... that she has sold him ... the Theban mill that belongs to her, Thatres, with netherstone and handle, just as it is and not subject to rejection; and that she, Thatres, has received from Pnepheros the price agreed upon, twenty-eight silver drachmas...."42
Circular clay ovens seem to have been constructed piece by piece within the courtyard itself. As each section was formed in clay it was fired, and then all of the parts were assembled. An opening was left at the top for putting fuel, as well as the bread to be baked, into the oven and a vent projected from the bottom. Sometimes insulation was provided by building walls of sundried brick around the terracotta oven walls.43 With the heat of the oven contained, other chores could be done in the courtyard while bread was being baked. Among other things, these would have included the care of household animals. Feeding troughs, roofed mangers and pens attest that the activities of the kitchen and the farmyard were normally carried on side by side. Only in the larger homes were there separate courtyards for each activity.
Amid the labors of the day, the engaging presence of children is revealed by the toys they left behind. Infants were amused by rattles made of pebbles encased in a pocket of woven palm or of sticks of wood laced together with string. Toddlers played -with pull-toys -- wooden horses and birds on wheels - while somewhat older siblings fashioned their own little animals in clay. Many dolls were cut from flat pieces of wood, and others were made of rags. Some of the rag dolls were even given human hair and removable hooded cloaks.44 With miniature stools, reading stands and lamps, children provided for their dolls the familiar comforts of home. Tiny clay pots, mortars and amphoras along with diminutive weavers' combs and carpenters' mallets show that children were eager to imitate adults as they went about their daily chores. A small papyrus booklet makes clear that the desire to read and write was instilled in the very young, and wax tablets used by older children for their lessons provide a glimpse of the methods by which these skills were learned. A letter from the Ptolemaic period, sent by two girls to their younger sisters, offers an intimate view of youngsters in a Graeco-Egyptian home: "Appollonia and Eupons to Rhasion and Demarion their sisters, greeting. If you are well it is good, we too are well. Please light a lamp for the shrines and spread the cushions. Be diligent at your lessons, and don't worry about Mother; she is getting on fine now. And expect us. Good-bye. PS. And don't play in the courtyard, but keep good indoors. And look after Titoa and Sphairon."45
The letter also reveals that children were taught to honor the gods and to maintain their household shrines, a tradition of worship in the home that reached far back into both the Egyptian and the Graeco-Roman past. In the wealthier houses of Karanis wall niches used for this purpose were often ornamented with an elaborately molded frame. Images of the deities were sometimes painted on the interior walls, and small sacred sculptures in stone, bronze, or clay were probably placed inside. Before such shrines, in the flickering light of oil lamps, cushions would have been spread and offerings made to the divine protectors of the family and home.
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(1) Husselman, 1979, 29-31.
(2) This arrangement is unlike that of the New Kingdona city of El-Amarna where houses were clustered together and shared facilities such as courtyards. In one instance at El-Amarna five courtyards were shared among eleven houses. See Kemp, 133- 34.
(3) Husselman, 1979, 38-39.
(4) Husselman, 1979, 9-30; Boak and Peterson, 2-5 and 39-40.
(5) Johnson, 1936, 256-7
(6) Youtie and Pearl, 1944, 21 (P.Mich. inv. 2977).
(7) Husselman, 1979, 35.
(8) Johnson, 1936, 330-31 and 360-64; Husselman, 1979, 33.
(9) See Husselman, 1979, 33-36 on Karanis houses; for an explanation of this technique in Egypt in general see Petrie, 1938, 10-12.
(10) Boak and Peterson, 23-27; Husselman, 1979,37-39.
(11) Husselman, 1979, 44-46.
(12) Ibid., 40-43.
(13) Ibid., 35-36.
(14) Baker, 114.
(15) Wanscher, 11; Baker, 127-134.
(16) Richter, 66, discusses the advantages of three legs in reference to Greek tables.
(17) Egypt's Golden Age, 65; Baker, 150; Richter, 66.
(18) For lightweight Egyptian tables see Baker, 114 and 150 for Roman tables see Richter, 110.
(19) PIiny NH, VII,56.198, comments on the invention of the lathe. The use of the lathe in Egypt prior to Roman influence has been debated. See Lucas, 510-11; Aldred in Singer, et al., 702; Baker, 303; Wanscher, 15. For turned legs of beds, see Baker, 144.
(20) Youtie and Winter, 32-33 (P.Mich. inv 5390). Although beds were sent to Karanis, no examples were found by the excavators. Because beds were regarded as valuable possessions (Egypt's Golden Age, 65) it is likely that they would have been taken along when the residents ultimately abandoned the town.
(21) Youtie and Winter, 32-33 (P. Mich. Inv. 5390).
(22) Root, 20; Harden, 155-66.
(23) Shier, 1978, passim.
(24) Boak and Peterson, 29-30.
(25) For storage below stairways, Husselman, 1979, 47. Occasionally there was one niche above another, both positioned below the windows. See Boak and Peterson, 29-30.
(26) Boak and Peterson, 29-30.
(27) Found in House C61.
(28) Petrie, 1927, 36 and 45-47; Aldred in Singer et al., 694-95.
(29) Egypt's Golden Age, 65.
(30) For a discussion of the containers to store kohl, see Egypt's Golden Age, 216-17.
(31) Forbes in Singer et al., 292-93.
(32) Typical of Roman influence, Petrie, 1927, 24; Egypt's Golden Age, 198.
(33) Egypt's Golden Age, 197.
(34) Egypt's Golden Age, 133-39; Crowfoot in Singer et al., 422.
(35) Egypt's Golden Age, 133-39.
(36 ) Youtie and Winter, 1951, 24 (P.Mich. inv. 5391).
(37) Bellah, 11-13.
(38) Art of the Ancient Weaver. 1980, 5-13.
(39) Bellah, 12-13; Petrie, 1917, 39.
(40) For a description of how a Theban mill operates, see Robinson and Graham, 326-30.
(41) Boak and Peterson, 66.
(42) Husselman, 1971, 71-72 (P.Mich. inv. 6038).
(43) Boak and Peterson, 35-36; Husselman, 1979, 49.
(44) Lindsay, 52; Shier, 1949, 61. For comparisons between Egyptian and Roman toys see, Petrie 1927, 58-62.
(45) Bell, 94 (P.Athens 60). This letter is not from Karanis.
Copyright 1983, 1997, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan. All Rights Reserved.