Logos in ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians knew about marks as well as script. The New Empire (ca. 1550-1070 BC) in particular provides a rich harvest. The script has now been deciphered, but the same does not apply to the system of marks used at the time. Egyptologist Ben Haring has been awarded a subsidy by NWO from the Free Competion in the Humanities programme to carry out research.
In his research project, Symbolizing Identity; Identity marks and their relation to writing in New Kingdom Egypt, Haring focuses on the marks of the workers who were occupied in constructing the royal tombs in the New Empire. Tomb-building mainly took place in what is currently Deir el-Medina, on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor.
Haring: ‘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 marks have become a system, a pseudo-script.
Functions and exchanges
Haring's aim with his project is to explain the system of logos of the tomb workers against the background of their written documents and the archaeological remains of their living and working quarters. He is particularly interested in the different functions of - and the exchanges between - marks and script. ‘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.
The intensive use of marks, often associated with the illiterate, is all the more remarkable because the workers were relatively highly educated. This is evidenced by thousands of ostraca and papyri from Deir el-Medina and the surrounding area. Haring: ‘They are covered with the usual administrative cursive script, Hieratic. The highly educated nature of the people therefore seems not to have supplanted the intensive use of logos for practical purposes, but rather to have stimulated it.'
But Haring's ambition stretches further than this: 'The synthesis of the sub-projects should result in a model that can serve as the basis for the study of similar symbolic systems, in Egypt and further afield.'