Egyptian peasants who, for the most part, did not have the financial means to contribute to the liturgical system, were obliged to spend five days (ἡμέρας πέντε) each year of unpaid work on the upkeep of the irrigation system, essential to a successful annual harvest. This included working on the dykes and canals and maintaining the free flow of water from the Nile up to the limits of the desert. Upon completion of the obligation a penthemeros receipt (or certificate) was issued. The work of reference for these documents is [Sijpesteijn 1964].
There are almost 400 of these receipts published (for references see [P.Col. X : no. 256, introduction]), ranging from the I - III CE, the latest dated to 221 CE [11197 Tebtunis]. These receipts come from the Arsinoite nome, but there is evidence (mostly on ostraca) of similar compulsory service in other nomes, where it was called the ναύβιον, a reference to the amount of earth to be removed from the canal, see [Sijpesteijn 1964 : 18-21]. Penthemeros receipts were issued for work carried out in the present year [9452 148 CE; 12276 161 CE, both Theadelphia], but also for arrears on days not served the previous year [13831 157-158 CE, Theogonis; 9321 159-160 CE, Soknopaiou Nesos]. Sometimes extra days might have to be worked even if the compulsory five had already been completed [14301 141 CE, Tebtunis] [Sijpesteijn 1964 : 12]. It appears that priests and their slaves may have been exempt from the obligation [Sijpesteijn 1964 : 9, but see also n.3].
A tax for the maintenance of dykes and canals was also levied (χωματικόν) [Wallace 1938 : 61; 420, n.27] from which Roman citizens and metropolites were exempt and it therefore seems unlikely that they were obliged to work on the canals either [Sijpesteijn 1964 : 9]. Such work could be delegated either by hiring a substitute or sending a slave. [Sijpesteijn 1964 : 9, n.1] highlights a particular family who are often found on the receipts to be working on behalf of another [15080 159 CE, Soknopaiou Nesos] Στοτ(οῆτις) Ἀπύγχ(εως) ὑπ(ὲρ) Μενελ(άου) ‘Stotoetis son of Apynchis for Menelaus’; and in  Apynchis stands in for another. The type of work carried out was occasionally specified, [14402 163 CE, Tebtunis] ἀφυλισμός ‘removal of vegetation from the water’, but usually not.
These receipts were drawn up in large numbers by scribes in the office of the κατασπορεύς, the official tasked with managing the sowing of the land, and as such, with some responsibility for the maintenance of the dykes and canals; for a closer look at this official see [Sijpesteijn 1964 : 15-17]. The structure is basically uniform:
- [date@start] consisting of the year only;
- Objective statement: εἴργασται ὑπὲρ χωματικῶν ‘work has been done on the dykes’;
- Date of the work: τοῦ αὐτοῦ … (ἔτους), ‘the same year’ or τοῦ διεληλυθότος … (ἔτους), ‘the previous year’.
At this point the remaining information was usually filled in on- site by the overseer of the work:
- The month and the actual dates of the labour;
- The specific location of the work – usually the name of the canal or dyke e.g.  ἐν διώ(ρυγι) Χομηνιακῇ, ‘in the Chomenis canal’, or [12320 90-91 CE, Soknopaiou Nesos] ἐν χώ(ματι) καιν(ῆς) διώρ(υγος) ‘on the new dyke of the canal’ – and the region, e.g.  Θεαδελ(φείας), [9393 164 CE, Karanis] Καρα(νίδος);
- The name of the labourer in full, i.e. with patronym, grandfather and mother e.g.  Τέως Κρονίωνος το(ῦ) Νεφερῶ(τος) μ(ητρὸς) Ταουεῖτ(ος);
- Official signature by the κατασπορεύς, sometimes with his title [17565 139 CE] and sometimes without [14581 146 CE, Theadelphia].
In some examples there is no change of hand and these appear complete except for the final signature e.g. [9392 162-163 CE, Soknopaiou Nesos; 9454 163 CE, Arsinoite nome; 9016 190-191 CE, Philadelphia]. In others, the date of the work is entered in a second hand and the name of the labourer by yet another, before the final official signature [11290 140 CE, Karanis; 14402]. Some receipts can have more than one official signature: [14577 111-112 CE, Soknopaiou Nesos] two signatures,  three signatures, [14681 93-94 CE, Philadelphia] four signatures. These may be signatures from a clerk (ἀντιγραφεύς) in the same office , or in the offices of the strategos and basilikogrammateus [12317 57-58 CE, Theadelphia]. For a list of the signatories of penthemeros receipts from I – II CE see [Sijpesteijn 1986 : 292-293].
Many receipts are squarish in format [14318 158 CE, Tebtunis; 13877 209 CE, Philadelphia]. Some examples are transversa charta [14265 52-53 CE, Theadelphia], others are in this orientation and written along horizontal fibres [9393; 14325 204 CE, Tebtunis]. In those receipts where the final signature is absent, a large bottom margin is visible [14319 159 CE, Tebtunis; 14322 170 CE, Tebtunis; 9016].
The text of the receipt is written as a single block, with a general uniformity in the pre-prepared lines written by the scribe [1377853-54 CE, Arsinoite nome; 14265; 14577]. There is often an enlarged first letter of the word ἔτους at the start [14402; 9321; 14917 169 CE, Soknopaiou Nesos], and clear indentations when the signatures are added [14680 87-88 CE, Philadelphia; 14681].
- P.Col. X.
- Sijpesteijn 1964.
- Sijpesteijn 1986.
- Wallace 1938.