The Materiality of Administration

Seal impression from Hierakonpolis

The seals and seal impressions from Hierakonpolis

Seal impression from Hierakonpolis

The cultures of the Lower Nile Valley transformed into one of the world’s earliest complex societies during the last millennia BC. Writing and bureaucracy are pivotal innovations in this process and eventually formed the backbone of the pharaonic state.

The aim of the project is to define an anthropological approach to the role of administration in the formation of archaic states. Previous studies used primarily textual data and have focused on the reconstruction of administration as an operational system. It remained obscure, however, how bureaucracy penetrated into prehistoric societies.

Materiality, including the theoretical underpinnings of the concept, provides a good framework for modelling administration as a diverse social practice on the interface between material culture and writing. It helps understand the rooting of administration in the use of objects and profile writing as a technique influenced and determined by the physical world.

The project is based on the documentation of a largely unpublished corpus of seals and seal inscriptions from Hierakonpolis dated to the Early Dynastic period and the early Old Kingdom (ca. 2700 BC). Most of the material was excavated in 1897-1899 and is kept today by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University.

Seal impression from Hierakonpolis

The analysis of inscriptions, associated finds, and digging diaries will be set against the wider background of developments in the Early Dynastic society in Egypt and discussed in the context of comparative issues involved in debates on the formation of early states. The project develops a social anthropological view on Egyptian administration and opens the Egyptology-centred field to neighbouring disciplines within and outside UCL.

It is relevant for Egyptologists and archaeologists as well as for scholars from the social sciences and historical disciplines interested in the formation of early states and the penetration of writing in material worlds.

Related outputs

  • Bussmann, R., 2010. Die Provinztempel Ägyptens von der 0. bis zur 11. Dynastie. Archäologie und Geschichte einer gesellschaftlichen Institution zwischen Residenz und Provinz. 2 volumes. Boston – Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.
  • Bussmann, R., 2011. The seals and seal impressions from Hierakonpolis, in: Egyptian Archaeology 38 (2011).
  • Bussmann, R., in prep., The materiality of administration. Seals and seal impressions from Hierakonpolis. With contributions of R. Doehl and L. McNamara.
  • Bussmann, R., in prep., Local horizons. Administration and communication in the early Egyptian state. Intended for publication in Cambridge Archaeological Journal.


  • Gerda-Henkel Foundation (Germany)
  • Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Postdoctoral Fellowship at the McDonald Institute of Archaeological research)
  • Crowther-Beynon Fund of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

Project Leader:

  • Richard Bussmann

Project Partners:

  • Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University
  • Hierakonpolis Fieldwork Mission, British Museum
  • Ashmolean Museum


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