THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

15 September 2020

Before photo IDs were invented

Identifying people correctly has always been a challenge. Even in ancient times, there were different ways to ensure that a person acting in a legal case, such as a sale, lease, adoption or inheritance, was who they claimed to be.

The most obvious identification is to record the individual's name, but this was not as straightforward as one may think. To avoid confusion of people with the same names, people in ancient Greece had their personal name appended with that of their father. On this 2500-year-old pottery sherd, which an Athenian citizen used to vote for Pericles to be exiled from the city, he identified the right Pericles by putting down his name accompanied by Xanthippos, the name of his father. This practice of recording the person and their father’s name is reflected even in English personal names. If someone is called George Harrison, that would have been read as George who is Harry’s son.

Piece of a dark pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles

Piece of a pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles ('Pericles son of Xanthippus') submitted in a vote to exile him from Athens (Athens, mid-5th century BC): Athens, Agora Museum P 16755 (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In Egypt, the system was the same but it was often the master whose name was listed after a personal name. This double identification was not always satisfactory. In a simple declaration of camels from AD 146, the declarant accurately identified himself with his own name and that of his father and grandfather: 'I Stotoetis, son of Stotoetis, grandson of Stotoetis'. All three generations had the same name.

The name of the declarant

Name of the declarant Sotoetis, son of Sototetis, son of Sotoetis, from the upper part of a papyrus sheet (Soknopaiou Nesos, Egypt, AD 146): Papyrus 390 (detail)

The situation was even more complicated if the different parties to the transaction had the same name. In a lease from AD 94, in which Hereius leased a large property to two tenants, these leasees were called Stotoetis of Apynchis and Stotoetis son of Stotoetis. In a sales contract from AD 166, we find women acting together with their families, whose names were all listed. To the probable horror of the clerk, all were called Stotoetis:

'Thases daughter of Stotoetis son of Horus, and her son Stotoetis son of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis, acknowledge that they received 14 silver drachmas as earnest money for a property from Taoues daughter of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis, and her husband Pabous son of Satabous son of Harpagathes.'

The beginning of a sale contract

The beginning of a sales contract with a list of the parties involved (Neilopolis (Tell el-Rusas), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, AD 166): Papyrus 334 (detail)

Keeping order in such a jungle of names would be easier today. The parties might be asked to provide their passport or photo ID, for instance, each with a unique number allocated to it, making it simpler to identify everyone. In the absence of such an option, ancient clerks reverted to another solution: they gave an accurate description of what the parties actually looked like.

The notary recording the above sale in AD 146 AD described each of the women and their families at their first mention in the document. This is how we know that Thases daughter of Stotoetis son of Horus 'was about 50 years old' (her exact date of birth was probably not recorded) and that 'she had a scar above the left elbow'. Her son Stotoetis son of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis was about 30 and 'had a scar on the right side of his forehead'.

A papyrus sheet containing a contract of a land sale

Large fragment from a papyrus sheet, containing a contract of a land sale (Krokodilopolis, Egypt, 107 BC): Papyrus 657 (detail)

In another sales contract from more than 2100 years ago, the two sisters selling the property to a man are described even more accurately: 'Taous, daughter of Harpos, is about 48, medium height, fair skinned, round faced, straight nosed with a scar on her forehead.' Her sister looked very similar: 'she is about 42, medium height, fair skinned, round faced, straight nosed with a scar on her forehead.' Reading these descriptions one can almost visualize the faces of these two ancient women. They may have resembled the face of a lady recorded on one of the portraits found with mummies in the Faiyum Oasis of Egypt.

Portrait of a lady painted on linen

Portrait of Aline, also known as Tonos, tempera on linen (Hawara/Fayum, c. AD 24): Ägyptisches Museum Berlin/Altes Museum, Inv.-Nr. 11411 (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

An even earlier document from 242 BC preserves the will of a man described meticulously for identification: 'He was 65 years old, of middle height, square built, dim-sighted, with a scar on the left part of the temple and on the right side of the jaw and also below the cheek and above the upper lip.'

Fragment from a papyrus sheet preserving the testament of a man

Fragment from a papyrus sheet preserving the testament of a man (Philadelphia, Egypt, 242 BC): Papyrus 2332 (detail)

This elderly man, in the latter stages  of his life, but strong in stature, may have been not unlike this portrait from another coffin in the Faiyum.

ortrait of an elderly man flanked by Egyptian gods

Portrait of an elderly man flanked by Egyptian gods (AD 250): New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 44.2.2 (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Reading these ancient descriptive IDs, one may suppose they were made up on the spot by the clerks themselves. But this may not always have been the case. In another papyrus from more than 2280 years ago, we read about the appointment of new stone-cutters for a project. Before they started their new jobs, the workers were presented to a committee, in order to take down their descriptions.

A letter concerning stone-cutters, written on papyrus

Fragment from a papyrus sheet, containing a letter concerning stone-cutters (Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 260-249BC): Papyrus 514

The document does not say more about these descriptions and how they were recorded and preserved, but we assume that they could have been used in legal transactions. The accurate descriptions of the parties in various documents, recording distinctive marks and features of the individuals involved, may reflect some kind of archived identification of these people. Whatever the truth, these ancient IDs have preserved unique shots of everyday women, men and children, comparable to the famous Faiyum Portraits.

 

Peter Toth

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