CHICAGO - In 360 B.C., in the ancient Egyptian city of Edfu, along the Nile south of Luxor, the economic bond between man and wife was formalized with words like these:
"I have made you wife," declares the husband in elegant script on a long piece of papyrus. "I have given to you five pieces of silver as your gift of a wife. If I divorce you and hate you and I take for myself another wife in your place, I shall give to you five pieces of silver in addition to the five pieces which are mentioned above."
The marriage document - a precursor to the prenuptual agreement, perhaps - is among the 3,000 texts being analyzed by University of Chicago Egyptologists preparing the first dictionary of demotic script and language.
The script survived 1,000 years, from the seventh century B.C. to the third century A.D. in an area that covered the length of the Nile in Egypt. It was used for business and legal documents, personal letters and religious and literary texts. It saw Egypt through the rule of Persian dynasties, Alexander the Great, Ptolemy and Cleopatra, and the Greek-speaking Hellenistic and Roman empires.
The University of Chicago project, which its authors hope will be completed by next year, will help scholars read tens of thousands of documents, many languishing unpublished or only partially translated in museums around the world. Fewer than 100 people in the world can properly decipher demotic script.
The project formally began 25 years ago under Egyptology professor Janet H. Johnson, but its roots reach back through generations of scholars - living and dead - beginning with the 19th-century German scholar Wilhelm Spiegelberg. These unheralded specialists performed the painstaking task of identifying demotic texts, cataloging the findings and preparing notes for the next generation to build on. The dictionary, scholars say, will help illuminate ancient Egypt as it evolved from an independent nation to one incorporated into the larger world.
"It's a way of playing with words and language, but more than that, it's a way of getting inside ancient culture," says Johnson, who traces her interest in Egyptology to seventh grade, when she read about Egyptian temples and hieroglyphics.
Demotic script was born out of the need for everyday written communication. Hieroglyphics - one of the earliest forms of written expression - was a pictorial system that was difficult to write, and its ornate images could represent a sound, a syllable, or a word. Eventually, its figures were blended into the shorthand that became demotic script.
Scholars first deciphered the script after discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone. That slab of black basalt had been inscribed in 196 B.C. with a royal decree in three languages - hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek. By comparing the hieroglyphics and demotic with the Greek, scholars learned how to translate the older languages.
Documents written in demotic portray an agricultural society from the point of view of the elite, since only the elite could read and write.
But it was a socially mobile society: People could rise by becoming literate and being capable in their jobs within the government bureaucracy. Women were legally equal to men and could, for instance, buy and sell property in their own name.
The documents studied by the University of Chicago team range from aphorisms that appear aimed at a schoolboy wanting to become a scribe ("The hissing of a snake is more significant than the braying of a donkey," says one entry) to a mortuary text, written to ensure that the deceased knows what to expect in the afterlife.
In a "gardening agreement" that scholars suspect may be a work of comedic literature, a woman named Talames goes to great lengths to instruct her male gardener, Peftumont: "If you intend to be a gardener for me in my garden, then you are to give water to it." She also directs him to make baskets and bring her palm leaves; wear a hat, workshoes and a leather apron; bring a spear to fight off hyenas and a sword for use against wolves.
And to make sure he doesn't eat her grapes, she says, "I am to ask you for your dung three times daily and I am to probe it with a stalk of flax."
The dictionary project has passed from teacher to student to teacher, their notes like family heirlooms passed to deserving scholarly heirs.
The University of Chicago has been a center for study of the ancient Near East since the school's founding in 1891, when a Yale University professor of Semitic languages, William Rainey Harper, became its first president. Harper appointed James Henry Breasted, the first American to receive a doctorate in Egyptology, to the first teaching position in Egyptian studies in the United States. In 1919, the university founded the Oriental Institute as a laboratory to study ancient civilization.