In the Wadi Sarga corpus, two things that are mentioned frequently (in fact, the two most common things) are wine and camels.
There are a huge amount of receipts for wine delivered to the monastery – this single category of text accounts for almost one-third of the published texts (and so far, I’ve identified 40 more among the unpublished fragments). Additionally, wine occurs in a range of other texts, mainly as a form of payment to individual people.
Wine was delivered by camel. The receipts name the camel-driver responsible, but the number of camels in their trains is not recorded in these short texts. Camels are also mentioned as the subject of letters written to the monastery, such as the following letter, O.Sarga 94:
“Give it to Father, Apa Justus, from the brethren of Pohe. Please send us all the camels, so they can clear-out these palm-branches. …”
Unfortunately, this doesn’t say how many camels they want (or how many palm branches they had to clear up!). Another letter, O.Sarga 93, asks specifically for eight camels, so that the recipient can load them with fodder, and another three ‘good’ camels for wine. The monastery therefore seems to have owned some camels, but how many?
Trying to get to the bottom of this is one of the questions that I’m currently tackling. As wine delivery was at a peak following the grape harvest and wine was mainly delivered between late August and early October, did the monastery need to hire more camels to cope with the quantities being delivered? Was the amount of wine delivered in a single delivery contingent on how many camels were available, or was the number of camels used dependent on the amount of wine? For example, the camel-driver Collouthos regularly delivered only 8 large measures plus 1 small measure of wine: was this because he only had a couple of camels? Other individual deliveries were for vast amounts of wine: O.Sarga 243 records 132 small measures of wine, delivered by the camel-herder John.
Connected to all of this, and something that is vital to bear in mind when dealing only with small scraps of writing, is the logistics involved in the whole process. While camels can carry a significant amount (they have a load-bearing capacity of 230 kg*), the main issue is how this much wine could be loaded onto the animal. In this respect, we have the evidence from camel terracottas, such as the one in the image above. These typically show a camel with four or six amphorae strapped to their harness (distributed evenly on each side). Over 100 amphorae would then require a whole lotta camels!
With this practical issue in the forefront of my mind, I’m currently mulling over the issues involved, hoping to reach some sensible conclusions about the number of camels needed, and how the monastery would have dealt with the logistics of keeping so many animals.
*The information on the load-bearing capacity is taken from Cotterell, B. & Kamminga, J. (1990). Mechanics of Pre-Industrial Technology: An Introduction to the Mechanics of Ancient and Traditional Material Culture. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 194.
The camel terracotta is in the Petrie Museum, London, inventory number UC 48026. This particular image is a snapshot from the 3D image provided as part of the enhanced digital publication of A. Stevenson (ed.) The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections (2015), in which I discuss various camel-related objects in the collection (see My Publications for more information).
As an aside, the only publication to deal with the issue of the volume of wine delivered to the monastery is Bacot, S. (2008). “La circulation du vin dans les monastères à l’époque copte”, in N. Grimal & B. Menu (eds) Le commerce en Égypte ancienne (Cairo: IFAO), 269–288. However, I believe that the conclusions reached here need to be revised, concerning the amount of wine delivered to the monastery annually and how much constituted ‘one camel load’.