Detail from the right side of an ancient Egyptian annuity contract. (Photo: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Eight feet long from edge to edge and brushed with beautiful calligraphy, the stretched-out scroll hanging on the walls of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago could easily be mistaken for a poem, or an ornate royal decree. It’s neither. It’s a prenup.

The 2,480-year-old marital document, written in demotic script—demotic being derived from the hieratic writing system, a kind of shorthand for hieroglyphs—was made to ensure that if the union between the signers didn’t work out, the wife would be adequately provided for. Her compensation would include “1.2 pieces of silver and 36 bags of grain every year for the rest of her life,” says Dr. Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the Institute. 

“Most people have no idea that women in ancient Egypt had the same legal rights as men,” says Teeter. Egyptian women, no matter their marital status, could enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and serve on juries and as witnesses. They could acquire and own property (and fairly often, they did: a fragment of papyrus from 1147 B.C, denoting thousands of land holdings names women as the owners of about 10 percent of the properties listed).

Married women could file for divorce, and they were even ensured alimony—provided they had a document like this one, which they could write up anytime before or during the relationship—at which point it would be more accurately described as a postnup.

This ancient Egyptian annuity contract was signed in 365 BCE. (Photo: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Such annuity contracts “were extremely advantageous to the wife,” writes professor Janet H. Johnson in an article for the University of Chicago Library. Unlike marriage contracts in contemporaneous cultures, they were purely economic, promising not eternal faithfulness or mutual responsibility but cold, hard cash. The above contract’s annuity ensured the wife could survive with or without her husband (although she had to pay for the privilege, giving him 30 pieces of silver upfront in exchange).

Another, from a compendium of legal documents relating to the northern Egyptian town of Siut, has the husband listing all of the property his wife brought with her into the marriage, and promising, in the case of a formal separation, to repay her for all of it. “One may assume that the woman and her family exerted as much pressure as they could to ensure that the husband made such a contract,” Johnson says.

Two rockin’ ancient Egyptian women, inscribed in a rock. (Photo: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

The mechanics of contract-writing in ancient Egypt weren’t much different from those in modern-day America. The co-contractors would get together and bring along a scribe and some witnesses. The person proposing the agreement would speak it aloud, and the scribe would write the terms down, translating them into legal language along the way. Then the second person would either accept or refuse. If he or she accepted, the contract was considered binding. If one of the signatories broke the terms, he or she would appear before a court to plead the case.

Another annuity contract close-up. (Photo: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Of course, legal status does not translate directly to life experience. In ancient Egyptian social and political spheres, women were still often dependent on men. As Johnson explains, men fit into the social hierarchy based on what jobs they held; since many women didn’t work, they were instead ranked based on their husbands or fathers. One Egyptian Empire-era text, The Instructions of Any, put it thusly: “A woman is asked about her husband, a man is asked about his rank.” This might explain why women used their legal power to do some things that seem surprising to us today, such as selling themselves into slavery in exchange for financial security.

Documentation of a labor strike from 1160 BCE. (Photo: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Egyptian women weren’t the only ones protected by surprisingly progressive legislation. Judging by another document in the Oriental Institute archives, Egypt was also the site of history’s first labor strike. The cursive hieratic inked onto the stone above describes how men tasked with building royal tombs walked away from the job and set their tools down, refusing to keep working until they were paid. (“They did a sit-in!” says Teeter.) Sadly, the story breaks off along with the stone—but the tombs were eventually built, so, Teeter says, “presumably they won the strike.”