Homepage Timeline Maps A-Z index Learning

Scope of writing in ancient Egypt: more detailed tabulation

Categories of content

From an initial tabulation, narrower categories can be proposed, dividing five of the seven broad categories into major groups; arguably, the narrower each category becomes, the more problematic its boundaries. The table below on this page offers examples for each narrow category, wherever possible drawn from the Petrie Museum collections.

Out of the seven broad groupings proposed on the first page on writing scope, twenty categories emerge, as follows:

Criticise these categories. Three examples may be used to introduce the problems with categories

Example 1: tags is taken here to include any commodity identifier, whether a separate label tied to an object, or a line of writing on the object container (box or pot). Should it be two categories?

Example 2: the table distinguishes between hymns and prayers; this assumes a visible distinction between cases where an address to a divine force contains no request for action (hymns) and cases where such an address includes a specific wish. Does this distinction apply invariably?

Example 3: Would 'Letters to the Dead' be 'letters' or 'prayers' in this table?


Periods from which the content survives

Division of time into periods (periodisation) is as contestable as categorisation of content. For this tabulation of narrower categories of content, eight broad periods are proposed, with the focus on the periods of political unity. A focus on periods of disunity would offer an instructive contrast.

Some categories may be represented in particular periods by a single object, particularly with the sporadic and sparse survival of papyrus manuscripts; sometimes the date and category are both uncertain, as in the numbers and arc on a stone block at Saqqara - is this Early Dynastic Period mathematical notation or Late Period account?

For the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, some categories are attested in Greek, but not in Egyptian scripts; letters between individuals in the Roman Period are in Greek.

Choice of script

Another detail added in this table concerns choice of script. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were developed principally to secure written content for eternity; for more mundane matters, cursive or shorthand versions of the script were used, and these tend to become more cursive over time.

Each box in the grid contains one of the four following entries:

Where an entry is followed by (F), this indicates that all surviving examples of that category from that period come from funerary contexts (e.g. hymns within the Pyramid Texts).


Table summarising the surviving record of writing

Where there is an example in the Petrie Museum, the UC number is given.

Early Dynastic

3000-2700 BC

Old Kingdom

2700-2000 BC

Middle Kingdom

2000-1550 BC

New Kingdom

1550-1050 BC

Third Intermediate Period

1050-700 BC

Late Period

700-300 BC

Ptolemaic Period

300-30 BC

early Roman Period

30BC - AD 200

1 tags EC (UC 16071), H (UC 16182) EC EC (UC 32016) EC (UC 32931), H   EC (UC 33172), LC (UC 19250)   LC (UC 45629), H
2 tables and accounts EC (UC 27388) EC (UC 32769) EC (UC 32097A) EC (UC 32795) EC LC LC (UC 71101) LC
3 reports   EC EC EC EC LC LC (UC 71104)  
4 legal   H EC (UC 32037), H EC (UC 19641), H EC LC LC (UC 71105) LC (UC 71100)
5 letters   EC (UC 16244), H EC (UC 32203) EC (UC 32782) EC LC LC (UC 31906) LC
6 treatment     EC (UC 32057) EC (1)        
7 prescriptions     EC, H (UC 32036) EC   LC   LC
8 incantations   H (F) (UC 14540) EC 32271B front) EC (UC 39763) EC     LC (UC 71103)
9 preserving identity: narrative   H H (UC 14333) H H (UC 14357) H H (UC 14357)  
10 preserving identity: non-narrative H (UC 14279) H H (UC 14358) H (UC 14471) H (UC 14226) H (UC 14634) H (UC 14506)  
11 rituals     H (UC 32091C) H, EC EC H (F), EC   EC
12 hymns   H (F) H (F), EC (UC 32091A) H (UC 8446), EC EC (UC 14693)     EC
13 prayers       EC EC LC    
14 tales     EC (UC 32773) EC EC   LC (UC 32423), H LC
15 teachings     EC EC (UC 39614) EC EC LC LC
16 laments     EC (UC 32156A)   EC      
17 love-songs       EC        
18 word lists and descriptions     EC (1) EC EC   LC, H EC, LC, H
19 mathematical     EC (UC 32134A) EC (1)     LC LC (UC 54961A-D)
20 astronomical     H (F) H (F)     H LC, H



Copyright © 2003 University College London. All rights reserved.