Symbolizing Identity

Identity marks and their relation to writing in New Kingdom Egypt
PhD research programme, May 2011 - August 2015; Universiteit Leiden
Supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific research (NWO)

Project leaders
Dr. B.J.J. Haring (applicant) and Prof. dr. O.E. Kaper

PhD students
K. van der Moezel and D. Soliman

Introduction
It is well known that literate societies have always used systems of graphic signs without direct phonetic implications, in addition to writing. Examples of such signs are the seal emblems and pot marks of antiquity, and medieval European masons’ marks, but also modern non-textual logos and trademarks, to name just a few practical applications.

Marking systems have always been tremendously important conveyors of information, especially so in societies with restricted literacy. In contrast to writing, however, these systems have rarely been studied systematically. As a consequence, there still is no phenomenological inventory of non-textual marking systems, explaining the range of usages and functions.

Identity marks are amply attested in Ancient Egypt (one of the earliest literate societies), but as little researched as anywhere else. Ownership and production marks on ceramic vessels (pot marks) were used throughout Ancient Egyptian history; in addition, we find team marks used in building projects of the Old and Middle Kingdoms (ca. 2650-1650 BCE), masons’ and quarry marks of all periods, and the marks of the royal tomb constructors of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1070 BCE), to name just several well attested systems.

The latter example is a very special case. The workmen who constructed the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, and who lived with their families at a site now called Deir el-Medina (near Luxor, ancient Thebes), applied them as ownership- or house marks to their possessions (figure 1) but also used them in the omnipresent graffiti they left in the Theban mountains, as well as on ostraca (figure 2).

Figure 1: Marks on pottery from Deir el-Medina tomb 359, late New Kingdom. From: G. Nagel, La céramique du Nouvel Empire à Deir El Médineh I, Cairo 1938, pp. 46-50.

Figure 1: Marks on pottery from Deir el-Medina tomb 359, late New Kingdom. From: G. Nagel, La céramique du Nouvel Empire à Deir El Médineh I, Cairo 1938, pp. 46-50.

The occurrence and the intensive use of marks in this particular community is remarkable, given the fact that we are dealing here with an exceptionally literate group of people. The proportion of literate or semi-literate people in the workmen’s settlement is estimated by some to reach appr. 40%, whereas the average rate of literacy in pre-Hellenistic Egypt is thought never to have risen above 1%. At the same time, marks seem to have been more popular here than anywhere else in Egypt. Thus, instead of superseding more ‘primitive’ pictographic devices, writing may effectively have stimulated their use.

The use of marks on ostraca and in graffiti, in horizontal rows or vertical columns, is reminiscent of the use of writing, both monumental (hieroglyphs) and cursive (hieratic).

The effect is that of pseudo-writing. Actual writing even influenced the appearance of many individual marks. Every sign of the marking system belongs to one of the following categories: (1) imitations of hieroglyphic or hieratic characters, (2) concrete signs, which are not based on characters of writing, but depict beings or objects observed by the creators of the signs, (3) abstract geometric signs, which depict nothing.

As opposed to writing, non-textual marks do not as a rule give linguistic information. Yet they show some affinity with the mechanisms of hieroglyphic writing, especially in the case of marks inspired by hieroglyphs. For most of the marks (hieroglyphic, concrete, and especially the abstract ones), the nature of the reference is obscure; many may be purely arbitrary.

Figure 2: Limestone ostracon Cairo CG 24105 from the Valley of the Kings, early New Kingdom. From G. Daressy, Fouilles de la Vallée des Rois, Cairo 1901, pl. XVIII.

Figure 2: Limestone ostracon Cairo CG 24105 from the Valley of the Kings, early New Kingdom. From G. Daressy, Fouilles de la Vallée des Rois, Cairo 1901, pl. XVIII.

Research objectives
The central object of research is the corpus of Theban marks ostraca: several hundred pottery and stone fragments inscribed with marks representing the royal necropolis workmen of the New Kingdom. Its main purposes will be:

(1) to explain the shapes and nature of the marks themselves, and their affinity with writing. What is the meaning of the individual signs, and how exactly do they convey that meaning? How were the marks created or selected? Do the marks represent a rule-constrained system with fixed categories and prototypes, more or less like hieroglyphs? To what extent are the available semiotic theories sufficient?

(2) to assess precisely how the marks were used in the workmen’s community – in addition to writing. Who precisely, in the community of workmen, were the users of the marking system? Was their knowledge of writing, or a lack of it, influential in this? What is the purpose of the records composed with marks on ostraca, and exactly what role do the marks play in these records? How did the system develop through the generations and centuries, and adapt itself to changing users and circumstances?

These questions ask for two entirely different approaches to the material, which will be dealt with in two PhD research projects. The two resulting case studies will make it possible to develop a phenomenological description, a model, of a marking system and its functions in a society with restricted literacy.

Source material
An overview of the workmen’s marks ostraca from the Theban necropolis (published and/or part of collections of Egyptian antiquities) known to us can be found here.

Although the ostraca are central to the research project, use shall have to be made of other objects and inscriptions showing the same marks, especially pottery and graffiti. These categories will be studied in cooperation with experts currently working on that material.

For a more detailed description of the research project, its objectives and the two PhD research projects, read the research proposal.

Last Modified: 09-12-2015