A 2,480-year-old Egyptian scroll was recently found. But the scroll is not some royal decree from the ruling Pharaoh, or an ancient poem written on the shores of the Nile. Egyptologists report that the scroll is a prenuptial agreement.
Written in demotic script — demotic being derived from the hieratic writing system, a kind of shorthand for hieroglyphs — the prenup 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.”
Most people have no idea that women in ancient Egypt had the same legal rights as men. Egyptian women, no matter their marital status, could enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and serve on juries and as witnesses.
In ancient Egypt, women used to be able to 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.
Back then, married women could file for divorce, and they were even ensured alimony — provided they had a document like a prenup, which they could write up any time before or during the relationship — at which point it would be more accurately described as a postnup.
Prenuptial agreements aren’t just for ancient pyramid dwellers, they are important for any couple planning to marry. I have written extensively on prenuptial agreements.
A prenup can help keep your non-marital property yours. The property you brought into the marriage is yours – mostly.
But over time it is common for people to start mixing things up. Inheritance funds get deposited into joint accounts; properties get transferred into joint names…and all for good reason.
Unfortunately, tracing commingled property is expensive, and hard to prove. But, if you put it in writing at the beginning, you might be able to avoid this task, and save some money down the road.
Prenuptial agreements also help you to change the law. For example, right now in Florida, there has been an ongoing debate about alimony. When you go to court, a judge has to follow state law regarding alimony.
However, through prenuptial agreements you can modify Florida’s legal standards for awarding alimony, in addition to modifying what the current law says about the amount of support and the duration of the alimony period.
This ancient Egyptian prenup was signed in 365 BCE. Such contracts were extremely advantageous to the wife. The prenups were purely economic, promising not eternal faithfulness or mutual responsibility – but cold, hard cash.
The ancient Egyptian prenup 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.
The prenup process was simple in ancient Egypt. The marrying couple 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 to sign the prenup. 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.
The Atlas Obscura article is available here.