Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

The Nature of the Workmen's Marks and Their Interaction with Writing

The project concerns the nature, the usages and functions of pictographic systems in relation to writing in societies with (restricted) literacy.


The central object of research is the corpus of marks ostraca deriving from the Ramesside Theban region in general, and from the village of Deir el-Medina in particular: marks are encountered upon several hundred pottery and stone fragments and they represent the royal necropolis workmen of the New Kingdom. While several people are involved in this project, it is my task to explain the shapes of the marks found within the corpus and their affinity with writing. Was hieroglyphic writing the source of the marking system as encountered in the Ramesside Theban area? Although some of the marks can be explained as phonetic or iconic references to the names of the workmen, there are marks of a non-scribal (i.e. concrete or abstract and geometric) nature as well. These especially present considerable graphic diversity. To what extent is this graphic diversity meaningful? What is the actual mark or signifier? It will be interesting to compare the development and use of this marking system that is partly inspired by real writing with current theories on the formation of the alphabet (B. Sass 1988; F. Kammerzell 2001; O. Goldwasser 2006). 

In order to investigate and to explain the shapes of the marks, palaeographic study is made of older Egyptian marking systems. In order to investigate the creation and selection of marks, I look into cognitive approaches of writing. In order to establish the nature of the marks, I pursue comparative research (e.g. medieval European masons’ marks: D. de Vries 2009). Main questions that are addressed in my research are: What is the meaning of the individual signs, and how do they convey that meaning? Are there rules behind the development and selection of the signs; how were they created or selected? To what extent can the signs be accommodated in a single model and be explained by means of the available semiotic theories? To what extent are the Theban signs universal? 

By means of palaeographic research and comparative, semiotic and cognitive analysis, my research aims at a categorization of the individual marks, a semiotic discussion of their meaning, selection and development and a phenomenological comparison with pictographic systems in times and cultures other than New Kingdom Egypt. 

Goldwasser, O.: Canaanites Reading Hieroglyphs,  Ägypten & Levante 16 (2006), p. 121-160. 

Kammerzell, F.: Die Entstehung der Alphabetreihe. Zum ägyptischen Ursprung der semitischen und westlichen Schriften, in: D. Borchers et al. (ed.),  Hieroglyphen, Alphabete, Schriftreformen. Studien zu Multiliteralismus, Schriftwechsel und Orthographieneuregelungen (Lingua Aegyptia, Studia monographica 3), Göttingen 2001, p. 117-158. 

Sass, B. :  The Genesis of the Alphabet and its Development in the Second Millennium B.C.(Ägypten und Altes Testament 13), Wiesbaden 1988. 

De Vries, D.J.: Signs and Symbols on Architecture. Building History in the Low Countries during the Middle Ages, in: B.J.J. Haring & O.E. Kaper (eds.),   Pictograms or Pseudo Script? Non-textual identity marks in practical use in ancient Egypt and elsewhere(Egyptologische Uitgaven 25), Leuven – Leiden 2009, p. 211-220.

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