Calligraphy in ancient Egyptian handwriting
There are few written sources for ancient Egyptian opinions on handwriting.
Appreciation of good handwriting is implied by a negative view of graffiti
preserved in one New Kingdom graffito at the Step Pyramid.
Apart from such rare references, our information comes from the manuscripts
themselves, which have yet to be studied in depth on this topic.
The fragmentary papyrus UC 32783, illustrated on the right, bears a copy
of a letter to king Amenhotep IV just before he changed his name to Akhenaten.
The care in writing, appropriate for a despatch to the king, provides
a starting-point for considerations of calligraphy in ancient Egyptian
Consider the following:
- The beginnings of letters, including copies of letters to the king, show
elaborate forms of signs, and larger signs, than the ends of letters.
- A person of higher status who is writing to someone of lower status may
have better handwriting (or writers), but may not feel any need to write carefully.
- Chancellery manuscripts (accountancy documents in which high officials are
mentioned) and legal documents are often carefully and very elegantly written;
some of the most beautifully written documents are court accounts (see UC
32102A among the Lahun papyri - however, a royal court accounts document
of the early Thirteenth Dynasty, from Thebes, is written in small and often
barely legible signs (Papyrus Boulaq 18, Egyptian Museum, Cairo) - is this
a reflection of its provincial origin, or lower status of the writer within
the scope of writing at court?
- literary manuscripts have a distinctive format, affecting appearance, and
are often but not always carefully and beautifully written; compare the finely
rounded signs evenly spaced on one side of the fragment UC
32106C, with the scrawled signs on its other side, both bearing literary
compositions (Lahun, late Middle Kingdom)
- one composition or group of compositions was copied hundreds of years later
in a distinctive semi-cursive style perhaps evoking the period of its original
composition, the handwriting style of the early Middle Kingdom (the composition
known in Egyptology as Kemyt); the style
may have been pleasing to the copyists, or it may have been deemed necessary
to copy for didactic reasons, as part of correct learning
- handwriting changes very considerably over time, with a tendency to grow
more cursive and then be reformed to more legible style: examples of particularly
clear writing include (1) late Twelfth Dynasty accounts and legal documents
and literary manuscripts, (2) mid-Eighteenth Dynasty accounts documents and
letters from Deir el-Bahri, and (3) Ramesside literary documents (contrasting
strongly with the increasingly cursive accounts and letters hands of that
Content affects format, dictating style; the range of handwriting at any one
period must also be considered. The cultivation of fine hands can be studied
across the blocks of content and time, once these have been distinguished (compare
the table illustrating the scope of writing).
Compare: orientation of hieroglyphs
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