Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Symbolizing identity: Identity marks and their relation to writing in New Kingdom Egypt

This research project focuses on the relation between identity marks and writing.

2011  -   2015
Ben Haring

Pharaonic Egypt was one of the earliest societies in which writing developed out of pictograms. Writing did not, however, cause the disappearance of pictographic systems. Among these are non-textual marks indicating ownership, responsibility or production by groups of people or by individuals. This phenomenon is still attested worldwide, but in contrast to writing it remains little researched.

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 proposed here focuses on the relation between identity marks and writing. What is the precise nature of identity marks? What interaction is there between these marks and writing? Is there a functional division in the uses of the two phenomena? What do marks tell us about the degree of literacy and cultural knowledge of their users? Answers to these questions are sought by analyzing a particularly well-documented marks system used in a highly literate village community: that of the royal tomb constructors in Thebes during the Egyptian New Kingdom (ca. 1150-1070 B.C.E.).

In contrast to other ancient marking systems, the Theban workmen's marks can be studied in a context of abundant archaeological and textual data. The proposed case study has two components: (1) theoretical and comparative research of the system and the individual marks; (2) historical research of the administrative and social background. A synthesis of the results attempts, for the first time, to create a model for interpreting marking systems and their role in society, transcending the specific cultural context of the data investigated. This model will serve as a point of reference for future interdisciplinary research and discussion on writing and related phenomena.