Deir el-Medina is the modern name for an ancient Egyptian village near modern Luxor (Thebes) that was inhabited between 1550 and 1070 BC. The village housed the workmen who constructed and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Deir el-Medina is since long known among Egyptologists for the major corpus of written documentation on all sorts of topics including private business, legal matters, religious and literary texts as well as administration of the work in the Theban necropolis. Nowadays, however, it is also known for the non-linguistic marking system of which the workmen intensively made use to convey their identity on pottery, tools and all kinds of domestic and funerary objects.[1] The marks were furthermore used in administrative records with the aim to identify the workmen in relation to their work in the necropolis (accountability). They appear to have formed a system of non-linguistic visual communication that made use of signs with various degrees of iconicity (geometric and pictorial signs) as well as of signs borrowed from the system of writing to create and convey meaning in a variety of manners, among others via metaphor. Indeed, the marks appear to have been complex metaphoric constructs, puzzles that attest semantic creativity, which convey not merely the name or one aspect of a workman’s identity but in addition reveal details about his origin, lineage, function, status and/or position.

The lecture will focus on those marks that borrow signs from the system of writing to create and convey such metaphorical meaning. It will explain in what sense they make use of deliberate metaphor to connect a workman to his mark. Finally, it will also address the question of change for, although the metaphor may have been direct and deliberate each time a new mark was developed and added to the system, it became conventional meaning for the users when considered purely within the framework of the marking system itself. Thus the question arises: How deliberate was deliberate metaphor in a diachronic perspective?

[1] The marks have been known at least since the early 1900’s, but were simply called ‘funny’ or ‘enigmatic signs’ and were not subject of systematical study before 2000 (Haring, ‘Towards decoding the necropolis workmen’s funny signs‘, Göttinger Miszellen 178 (2000), 45-58). Only from 2011 on they were studied in detail (NWO Research Project under the direction of dr. B.J.J. Haring: ‘Symbolizing Identity. Identity Marks and their relation to writing in New Kingdom Egypt’. Promovendi: D. Soliman & K. van der Moezel.