On Writing in Ancient Egypt

Christopher Woods notes that historians may have been mistaken in their assessment of the role of writing at its advent in ancient Egypt. He writes, “Long connected with ceremonial display, early writing in Egypt arguably now finds closer associations with bureaucratic necessity,” (Woods, 4).

The two artifacts I selected for this fieldbook entry are particularly interesting with this in mind, because they seem to reflect a little of column A and a little of column B, as it were. The objects I selected are dated ~1,500 years and ~2,500 years after the estimated advent of writing in Egypt, but the two objects certainly satisfy these societal roles.

Coins for the ferryman, 332-331 B.C.

  • Coins were placed in the hands of mummies for the dead to “pay the ferryman” to travel to the underworld.
  • Coins were inscripted with heiroglyphs that unfortunately were not translated at the Museum of Fine Arts, but I believe it to be safe to assume that the heiroglyphs held certain significance either in terms of ceremonial value, or in terms of monetary value (in which case, perhaps more valuable coins would be placed in the hands of those who had been wealthy or powerful in their lives).
  • While in a sarcophagus this makes little difference, the coins’ small size suggest that money was intended to be portable; it was intended to be able to be used on-the-go.
  • Heiroglyphs could likely not be easily engraved onto metal coins (especially since coins in Egypt were often made with harder metals than gold). This, as well as the material of which they are comprised, suggests that the coins are valuable and held, generally, by the wealthy.

Victory Stele of Thutmose III, 1479-1425 B.C.

  • Marked the southernmost end of Thutmose’s territory
  • Served the purpose of a ceremonial display in that the statue displayed heirogplyphs of Thutmose III making offerings to the god Amen-Ra, inter alia
  • The intricate imagary and storytelling engraved in stone demonstrate the fact (albeit one that one could likely otherwise intuit) that Thutmose III was a wealthy and/or powerful man. Not just anybody could commission such a demanding piece to be made.
  • Interestingly, this shows that one of Socrates’ critiques of writing in Plato’s Phaedrus is at least not ubiquitously applicable. Socrates believed people would rely on writing too much to remember information, but this stele serves the purpose of showing and reminding all of the extent of Thutmose III’s territory - a purpose that would not be otherwise satisfied.