Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Deciphering pseudo-script in ancient Egypt

In addition to using Hieratic script, the ancient Egyptian workers also developed their own identity marking system. The Egyptian New Kingdom (ca. 1150-1070 B.C.E.) in particular provides many examples of these marks, but although Hieratic has now been deciphered, the system of marks is still a mystery.

In an effort to understand more about these marks, Egyptologist Dr Ben Haring from the University of Leiden, has been awarded a grant to carry out a more detailed research.
Tomb workers
In his research project, Symbolizing Identity; Identity marks and their relation to writing in New Kingdom Egypt, Dr Haring focuses on the marks of the workers who were occupied in constructing the royal tombs during the New Kingdom. By analysing what is a particularly well-documented system, the ‘marks‘ can be studied in a context of rich archaeological and textual data.

Dr Haring explains, “The workers used individual marks to identify themselves. The marks have been found on their possessions and in graffiti that they applied in their living and working quarters. They were also used to make administrative lists and accounts on ostraca, or fragments of pottery and stone, hundreds of which have been found.”
This, and also the organisation of the marks into rows and columns, mean that the shorthand tags have become a writing system, in effect, a pseudo-script.

Hieratic writing did not cause the disappearance of pictographic systems, with non-textual marks indicating ownership, responsibility or production by groups of people or by individuals. In literate societies, marking systems are heavily influenced by writing, even to the extent that series of marks may look like written records. Yet marks are not writing in the true (i.e. linguistic) sense. The research focuses on the relation between these identity marks and writing.
• What the precise nature of identity marks represents?
• What interaction is there between these marks and writing?
• Is there a functional division in the uses of the two phenomena?
The research consists of two sub-projects, for which two PhD researchers will be appointed. One of the sub-projects will concentrate on the nature of the logos themselves, the other on their functions and the history – including the social history – of this system of marks in the workers’ community.

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