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International Conference
Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt

(Cracow, Poland: 28th August - 1st September 2002)
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Early Dynastic Egypt
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Early Dynastic Palaeography


Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels (Belgium)


The relatively poor state of preservation of a lot of Early Dynastic inscribed objects together with unusual forms of signs are the main reasons for different readings and interpretations. When deciphering unclear inscriptions, a lot of these problems could be reduced through an easier access to parallel/similar inscriptions and -based on this- the compilation of a palaeography.
The investigation of writing from the formal point of view is the prime domain of the epigrapher and the palaeographer. In the broader research of ancient Egyptian writing, palaeography takes an important place. Not only describes it a form evolution of separate signs; it also contributes to a better knowledge of early writing in general.

For the Early Dynastic period, only a little amount of inscriptions were studied palaeographically. Already in 1927 Hilda Petrie offered a tabulation of signs pertinent to the text material from the 1st and 2nd dynasty (Petrie 1927). Although the available amount of Early Dynastic inscriptions has increased tremendously, this is still the largest published collection of early hieroglyphic forms. Again in 1939, Emery published an abstract of signs found among the inscribed material coming from tomb S3357 in Saqqara (Emery 1939: 83-112). Although both studies used original material, which is one of the most important requirements when compiling a palaeography, they were limited in the available material, consequently outdated and therefore subject to updating and extension.

In 1985, Michele Germon Riley finished a palaeographic study at the Sorbonne based on signs of the 0th until the 2nd dynasty (Germon Riley 1985). In total, 2000 inscriptions were considered. Apart from the fact that this work stayed unpublished, the study would be unreliable because the signs were extracted from published drawing in secondary literature only.¹ Although some published drawings and pictures can be very usable for palaeographic study, one should be aware of the great risk that the use of second-hand drawings carries with it. Drawings and pictures in older publications and excavations reports frequently seemed to be schematic or inaccurate and often we are only dealing with reconstructions.
For the earliest hieratic, we can refer to the work by Hans Goedicke (1988). However, his main point of attention lays in the Old Kingdom.²
Also little clusters of Early Dynastic material have been treated palaeographical before. This applies for example to the hieratic used for annotations on vessels found by Edel in the tombs at Qubbet el-Hawa at Aswan (Edel 1970) and on the Ceiling Stelae, most of them excavated by Saad at Helwan (Saad 1957) with a few examples from Saqqara and Abusir (Kahl 1997). Using palaeographic criteria, Kahl was able to propose a more specific date for these stelae.
While each of these publications offered a tabulation of the hieratic signs pertinent to the text material concerned, a synopsis of the palaeographical development during this period is difficult at best.

¹ Jochem Kahl, pers. comm.
² For example, he mentions the important group of ink inscriptions that were found under the Djoser pyramid; however does not use them in his palaeography.



The few existing studies are therefore to be updated and extended.

The main goal of the PhD presented here is to compile an extensive palaeography, based on original objects in order to clear uncertainties and provide a useable amount of parallels material.

This palaeography reflects writing done over almost a millennium. It considers all inscribed objects from the 0th until the 3rd dynasty (~3400-2575 BC.). The largest group of relevant material consists of seal impressions, distributed over long distances from Middle or Upper Egypt to their find-spots in the Delta and beyond. It concerns for example also ink inscriptions and engravings on stone and clay vessels as well as wooden and ivory labels (Emery 1954: pl. 102; Emery 1958: pls. 38, 76, 83, 107; Petrie 1900: pls. VIII,A8; X,1-7; XVII,26; XIX, XXXII, XLII; Petrie 1901: pls. XII, XXV; Petrie 1902: pls. I-III). Although not yet written on, papyrus was known from the first dynasty onwards, as demonstrated by a blank roll found in the tomb of Hemaka in Saqqara (Emery 1938: 41). Inscriptions that cannot be designated as "writing", for example potmarks as far as they cannot be read, as well as objects whose date within the above-mentioned period is doubtful, will not be dealt with. Particularities caused by the differences of these writing materials and the execution of writing on them, could determine the significant karakter of sign-forms.
The oldest sources of writing preserved in ancient Egypt are the inscriptions on ivory tags and pottery from the tomb U-j in Abydos (Dreyer 1998). Chronologically, this recently published material is followed by ink inscriptions on clay vessels (Petrie 1900: pls. I-III; Petrie 1913: pls. XXXI 65, 67; Saad 1947: 112, fig. 12; Kaplony 1958: 54. They name a king "Horus Sechen/Ka (?)" in addition to a rudimentary identification of the vessel's contents. The goods contained in the vessel have been identified as oil deliveries from Upper en Lower Egypt (Helck 1984: 777; Kaiser 1964: 92; Kaplony 1963: 293).
There is no indication that the earliest writing had truly literary aims in the sense of communication, and even less of „creative writing". However, the typical features of the script are fully applied, including an apparent cursiveness by ink inscriptions, although there is no attested development leading to it. The range of signs is limited, but shows considerable variety, probably an indication that no rigid standards had evolved by this time.

It was mainly in the first half of the 19th century that museums acquired their largest number of objects. In exchange for funding excavations, archaeological finds were distributed among the concerned museums. A lot of Early Dynastic collections were almost completely formed trough subscriptions to excavations on important sites as Abydos and Saqqara. This scattering of objects throughout the world, is probably the main reason why an extensive palaeography, based on originals was never aimed for. Original tracings from as much inscriptions as possible will be made. However, tracking down their present depository appeared to be a difficult undertaking. Although a lot of objects could be re-discovered from the literature, "excavation" in museum storerooms and basements in order to find more of them will also be part of this research. Furthermore, not all of the retrieved material will be accessible. Therefore, good pictures and in some cases reliable drawings will be used in addition to this.




DREYER, G., 1998.
Umm el-Qaab I, Das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse. ÄV 86. Mainz.

EDEL, E., 1970.
Die Felsengräber der Qubbet el-Hawa bei Assuan, II: Die althieratischen Topfaufschriften, 1: Die Topaufschriften aus den Grabungsjahren 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1965; 2: Text. Wiesbaden.

EMERY, W.B., 1938.
The Tomb of Hemaka. Excavations at Saqqara. Cairo.

EMERY, W.B., 1939.
Hor-Aha, Excavations at Saqqara 1937-1938. Cairo.

EMERY, W.B., 1954.
Great Tombs of the First Dynasty II. EES 46 - Excavations at Sakkara. London.

EMERY, W.B., 1958.
Great Tombs of the First Dynasty III. EES 47 - Excavations at Sakkara. London.

GOEDICKE, H., 1988.
Old Hieratic Palaeography. Baltimore.

HELCK, W., 1984.
Sechen. [in:] HELCK, W. & OTTO, E. (eds.), LdA, V: 777-778. Wiesbaden.

KAHL, J., 1997.
Zur Datierung der frühen Grabplatten mit Opfertischszene. SAK, 24: 137-145.

KAISER, W., 1964.
Einige Bemerkungen zur ägyptischen Frühzeit. III. Die Reichseinigung ZAS, 91: 86-125.

KAPLONY, P., 1958.
Sechs Königsnamen der I. Dynastie in neuer Deutung. Orientalia Suecana, 7: 54-69.

KAPLONY, P., 1963.
Die Inschriften der ägyptischen Frühzeit, I-III. ÄA8. Wiesbaden.

PETRIE, H., 1927.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs of the First and Second Dynasties. London.

PETRIE, W.M.F., 1900.
The Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty. 1900. Part I. EEF 18. London.

PETRIE, W.M.F., 1901.
The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties. 1901. Part II. EEF 21. London.

PETRIE, W.M.F., 1902.
Abydos. Part I. 1902. EEF 22. London.

PETRIE, W.M.F., 1913.
Tarkhan I and Memphis V. BSAE & ERA 23. London.

RILEY, M.G., 1985.
Paléographie des signes hieroglyphiques sous les deux premières dynasties égyptienne (Thèse de doctorat de IIIème cycle (inédite). Paris: Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne.

SAAD, Z.Y., 1947
Royal Excavations at Saqqara and Helwan (1941-1945). CASAE 3. Le Caire.

SAAD, Z.Y., 1957.
Ceiling Stelae in Second Dynasty Tombs from the Excavations at Helwan. CASAE 21. Cairo.


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