When It Rains It Pours

Digs & Discoveries January/February 2024


It didn’t rain frequently in ancient Egypt, but when it did, says Sapienza University of Rome archaeologist Aneta Skalec, it could come down so violently that it led to legal quarrels between neighbors. Skalec examined a papyrus known as the Demotic Legal Code of Hermopolis West, which was recorded in the time of the pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 285–246 B.C.), although its origins are likely centuries earlier. The document contains the most extensive known collection of Egyptian laws, many of them concerning leasing of property and rules of inheritance. “Among the various regulations, we find those concerning neighborly disputes,” Skalec says. “I was surprised when I came across the regulations relating to rain.”

One passage stipulates how to handle a complaint brought forward by someone whose house is being splashed by rainwater discharged from their neighbor’s roof. The document instructs judges to assess the situation themselves by pouring water through the neighbor’s gutters to determine whether the plaintiff’s grievance is valid. If they determine that it is, then the drainage system of the offending party should be blocked off.

The text is puzzling, in part because there are no known examples of rainwater drainage systems such as the one described in the legal code. Very few excavated ancient Egyptian houses retain their upper stories or roofs—they rarely survive because they would have been constructed from wood, branches, and leaves. “Initially, I was unable to find any archaeological evidence confirming the existence of similar rainspouts in Egypt,” Skalec says. “This motivated me to delve deeper into the topic.”

Skalec noticed that some Egyptian temples, such as the Temple of Edfu in southern Egypt and the Temple of Hathor at Dendera in the center of the country, have waterspouts, often shaped like lion’s heads, designed to channel rainwater from their roofs. While these elements are not quite analogous to the spouts described in the legal code, they do suggest that ancient Egyptians were acquainted with the sort of issues that could arise from heavy rainfall.

The best evidence for the type of gutter system that may have caused the legal imbroglio mentioned in the Hermopolis West papyrus can be found in small models of Egyptian houses that were deposited in tombs. Examples of these models were discovered in the tomb of Meketre, a Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.) royal administrator who was buried in Thebes around 1980 B.C. In his tomb, archaeologists discovered 24 wooden models depicting scenes of everyday life. Among them is a model of a house, presumably Meketre’s. The model’s colonnaded facade has a flat roof with three clearly protruding U-shaped rainspouts that appear similar to the offending features described in the code.

After analyzing the miniature facsimile, Skalec determined that during heavy rainfall, water rushing from these spouts could have been discharged with such force, and to such a distance, that it would have splashed onto neighboring properties, which were often separated by just a three-foot-wide street. “There’s no reason to assume that the code regulates a purely theoretical event,” Skalec says. “Such splashing was particularly dangerous due to the fact that Egyptian houses were made of mudbrick, which was not durable and not very resistant to water.” It seems that Egyptian homeowners were right to fear for the structural integrity of their houses and to plead their cases before the courts, lest their homes be washed away due to their neighbors’ negligence.