It was William Mathew "Flinders" Petrie (1853-1942), the famous English archaeologist who, in 1890, discovered, at Kahun, Egypt (anciently known as Illihun), amidst the pyramid he discovered there, the world's oldest wills.

Both were discovered in parchment/papyrus form - to see the actual document of Uah's will, see the LawGallery.

Here a caution: spellings of ancient Egyptians vary from source to source. The first discovers gave out names as best they could from phonetic renditions of hieroglyphics but not only have these "evolved" but more recent Egyptian archaeologists have preferred different renditions of some names. Osiris is later referred to as Uah and even Uab; Sekhenren as Ankh-ren.

Also, when the will were first discovered, they were dated circa 2,500 B.C. Indeed, older legal history books and the contemporary newspaper accounts they relied on refer to these dates. But more recent and credible sources date these two wills to 1797 BC and defer to the name Ankh-ren (and not Sekhenren) and Uah (as opposed to Osiris or Uab).

So, with that caveat emptor....

Ankh-ren's WillThe oldest was a will made by Ankh-ren (Sekhenren) in 1797 B.C., giving his brother Uah (aka Osiris), stated to be a priest, of all of Ankh-ren's property. The pieced-together original text with "(?)" when some uncertainty exists - hieroglyphics are written and are intended to be read right to left.

"Copy of the title to property made by the devoted servant(?) of the superintendent of works, Ankh-ren. 2 Year 44, month Peyni, day 13. 3 Title to property made by the devoted servant of the superintendent of works, Shepset's son, Ahy-senb, who is called Ankh-ren, of the Northern uart. 4 All my property in marshland(?) and town(?) is for my brother the uab in charge of the corps of Sepdu lord of the East, Shepset's son, Ahy-Senb, who is called Uah; 5 all my associated persons(?) (are) for this brother of mine. These things were deposited in copy(?) at the office of the second registrar(?) of the South, in the year 44, month Paophi, day 13."

Uah's will was also found. It bears a reference to Amenemhat IV, or 1797 B.C. In that latter parchment (both were on papyrus), the testator Uah gave his wife Teta all the property he received from his brother Ankh-ren and, oddly, forbids her from demolishing any of the houses he had received from Ankh-ren.Uah's will

One rendition of the will, again the pieced-together original text with "(?)" when some uncertainty exists:

"Title to property made by the uab in charge of the corps of Sepdu lord of the East, Uah: I am making a title to property to my wife, 8 the woman of Ges-ab, Sat-Sepdu's daughter Sheftu, who is called Teta, of all things given to me by my brother, 9 the devoted servant of the superintendent of works, Ankh-ren, as to each article in its place of everything that he gave me. She shall give it 10 to any she desires of her children that she bears (has borne ?) me. I am giving to her the eastern slaves, 4 persons, 11 that my brother, the devoted servant of the superintendent of works, Ankh-ren, gave to me. She shall give them to whomsoever she will of her children. 12 As to my tomb, let me be buried in it with my wife, without allowing anyone to move (?) earth to it. 13 Moreover, as to the apartments that my brother, the confidential servant of the superintendent of works, Ankh-ren, built for me, my wife dwelleth (shall dwell ?) therein, without allowing her to be put (forth) thence on the ground 14 by any person. It is the deputy Gebu who shall act as guardian of my son (lit. "be child-educator for my son")."

Uah names a guardian for his children: Gebu (aka in some writings as Siou or even Siov).

The will of Uah had two witnesses, both scribes.

When it was discovered, the wills made legal historians review their theories as it had to that point been believed that law had not progressed sufficiently anywhere to recognize legal mechanism of transferring property on death by will or, for that matter, the revelation that women could partake in an inheritance. The inflexible practice of automatic transfer of property to the oldest male held place in what law there was among early human societies, except for this novelty then in Egypt and now virtually around the world as property is freely transferred in keeping with the testator's wishes and not an inflexible or male-dominated flowchart.

The London Standard, quoted by the New York Times, wrote that the discovery:

"... seems to put the theory of legal evolution some twenty centuries back."

REFERENCES:

  • An Introduction to the History and Culture of Pharaonic Egypt, retrieved from the Internet on July 24, 2011 from http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/index.html
  • Duhaime.org, Duhaime's Timetable of World Legal History
  • Harris, Virgil, Ancient and Famous Wills (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1911), pages 12-13
  • Petrie, W. M. "Flinders", and Griffith, F.L., The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob, Principally of the Middle Kingdom (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1898)
  • McAtee, Ancient Wills, 2 Legal Chatter 37 (1938-1939)
  • New York Times, "Oldest of Known Wills", February 2, 1890