Writing – Image – Material: On Media and Communication in Ancient Egypt

By Dr Michela Luiselli

Communication is a form of interaction between two or more parties during which a message is conveyed through the use of media. According to modern media studies a crucial issue is the impact media and communication channels have onto a target audience. However, media and communication issues are not exclusively peculiar to our modern society. In fact, ancient societies display a highly developed communication system whose investigation leads to the following main questions: what was the connection between literacy and orality? How developed was the writing system? Could it encode the spoken language? What kind of audience had access to written culture? How could messages of a cultural, political and religious nature be conveyed in a low literate society? What was the role played by non-verbal and visual communication?    

Ancient Egyptian culture is documented over more than 3000 years. Architecture, writing, figurative art, religious thoughts, literature, medicine, magic and daily life culture developed through this long period of time by continually changing its features and reflecting new historical and social realities. The increasing stratification of society is attested in Egypt from Pre-dynastic times (especially from Naqada II, i.e. 3500-3200 BC) onwards,1 witha concomitant increase in literacy2 and economic development.3 With the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3000-2686 BC) the developments mentioned above slowly led to the formation of a politically centralised and hierarchically organised state,4 characterised by an economically and culturally strong elite opposed to a broader stratus of common people.

Writing and representation in Egypt: an Overview

Messages are usually conveyed through the use of media. Among these we count script and representation, the material surface, colours as well as gestures, body postures, music, voice, etc. The first evidence of an Egyptian writing system dates back to the Naqada IIIA1 period (c. 3300 BC). It comes from the so-called tomb U-j in Abydos5 which probably belonged to a high ranking individual.6 The tomb revealed approx. 175 incised tags with geometrical and pictorial signs7 that have been interpreted as forerunners of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system.8 Several scripts were developed in Egypt through time, though two systems remained fundamental: the monumentaland highly pictographic hieroglyphs and the cursive hieratic hand writing, developed from the hieroglyphs.9 During the 7th and 6th century BC a new cursive writing system – the so-called demotic – was developed and used alongside hieroglyphs and hieratic, though mainly for everyday purposes. Eventually and especially during the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC) demotic was also used on monuments.10 The audience accessibility and the content reflected by these scripts are crucial issues. While the use of hieroglyphs was always restricted to a relatively small group of specialists11 who were purposely trained, hieratic is likely to have been more wide spread, although school training was the requisite for being able to read and write.12

Alongside the invention and emergence of script in the early stages of the Egyptian culture, figurative art developed. It was used mostly for political and religious display purposes13 and in general to encode complex messages for which the writing was not sufficiently developed.14 The basic rules and patterns of Egyptian representation known among Egyptologists as the ‘canon of proportions’15 were already set in the Pre-dynastic times,16 but continuously developed new styles and features.17 Similarly to the hieroglyphic writing system, representation was highly symbolic, being an art that could be “read” and the pure aesthetic aspect was a later development. Although at first script and figurative art were in the hands of the political elite, with time specialists like craftsmen and scribes increased in number alongside the development of new settings for inscriptions and representations. Writing and representational art became two different media which worked together for communication and display purposes by addressing different audiences.18

As far as the evidence is concerned, the main purposes of both text and image were the display of high culture19 and the conveying of messages within funerary contexts, though not exclusively royal. Rectangular slabs coming from cemeteries in Giza (by modern Cairo) and dating to the 3rd Dynasty (2686-2613 BC) displayed the tomb owner sitting on an offering table. The surface was also covered with inscriptions listing offerings at first and becoming over time more complex until providing a detailed description of the deceased’s life.20 As a matter of fact, during the Old Kingdom (2686-2160 BC), text and image became the two indispensable parts of a whole. By the 5th Dynasty (2494-2345 BC) private tombs, structured on a lower and an upper section,21 displayed a vast surface covered by scenes integrated with inscriptions. Simultaneously, the first royal funerary text corpus known as the Pyramid Texts covered the walls of the funerary chamber of the 5th Dynasty’s kings, thus reflecting a dramatic development of the writing system unknown until then.

It is particularly from the so-called First Intermediate Period (2160-2055 BC) onwards that Egypt experienced a dramatic increase in the use of different media. Text and image were no longer connected with the sacred context only, but also developed in other settings. Though already used in earlier times for administration purposes, papyri and ostraca acted more and more as a support for literary texts, school exercises, private letters, and also sketches, magical and medical texts, religious hymns and prayers as well as funerary literature. Alongside these developments, libraries based in temples,22 ‘houses of life’,23 archives,24 schools,25 and also owners of private books increased, thereby keeping and transmitting Egypt’s cultural production.26

In need of space: the surface of an Egyptian artefact

As a consequence of the development of script and representation, new media were chosen. The surface27 of statues, statuettes and stelae gained relevance for self-presentation purposes and personal religious practice and began being covered by inscriptions and representations. A significant example is also provided by shabti statuettes (fig. 1: ECM414 © IAA University of Birmingham). Shabtis were human-headed mummiform funerary statuettes attested from the Middle Kingdom onwards and meant for the deceased’s afterlife. While representing the deceased, they fulfilled his/her jobs in the beyond. They bear an inscription (the so-called shabti formula) all over the lower cylindrical surface that corresponds to the legs and feet. ECM414 is a stone shabti of the ‘mistress of the house’ Satamun, dating to the 19th Dynasty that organises the hieroglyphic inscription in registers. The rear bears the depiction of the working basket, while the collar around the neck and the working tools held in the hands cross over the chest on the front of the figure. Shabtis are attested in different materials (wood, stone, faience) according both to the deceased’s status and the trend of the period.

Communicating religion

The Egyptians believed in an interaction with transcendent spheres. Therefore, different media were used to address dead individuals as well as divinities. All of them were believed to intervene in human life and thus were approached to be appeased, given offerings, adored, etc. Similarly to communication between human partners, supernatural beings could be addressed through verbal or non-verbal communication. The latter in particular should be understood in a broader sense, with reference to the performance and quality of gestures and body postures,28 as well as through images, including artefacts. Communication could also be carried out orally,29 or via rituals.30

2-ECM638In addition to the relevance given to the surface as a support for inscriptions and depictions, the setting of an artefact became crucial in terms of its impact on the audience. Especially from the Middle Kingdom onwards, private statues and stelae were set in places (temple or tomb courtyards) that were partly accessible to a broader public.31 Despite the overall low literacy rate, the general meaning of the scenes displayed on the stelae or of some type of statues32 would be decoded by a broader audience.33 This can also be assumed for small divine figures. ECM638 (fig. 2) is an 11.5 cm high figure of an Egyptian lion headed goddess that could be either Sekhmet34 or Mut.35 She is represented in standing position with the solar disc and uraeus (broken) on the head and dorsal pillar. The figurine is made of beeswax, a material that according to Egyptian belief had magical properties and was used in later times within magic rituals.36 Therefore, although the original setting cannot be identified, it was probably used for personal religious or magical purpose. Sekhmet’s violent and powerful nature was feared and rituals were performed to appease her. Though the decoding of divine iconography by a broader audience cannot be assumed, collective religious experiences like feasts and processions as well as individual daily religious practice37 also provided non-elite people with basic knowledge of religion.


3-ECM1429Egyptian visual and written culture was based on a complex system of symbols. ECM1429 (fig. 3), a double sided wedjat eye amulet made of blue-green faience, for instance is an excellent example to show how objects with a highly religious-mythical symbolism were used in daily life also by non-elite people though they probably were not able to decode, and thus understand, their meaning. We cannot compare the effectiveness of our modern channels of communication with the Egyptians ones, but nonetheless we face a culture which developed a highly functional media apparatus which similarly to nowadays, constantly developed to ensure encoding, preservation, and communication.


  1. It is initially reflected by funerary architecture (Bard 2000: 61), and further apparent in the decoration of Tomb no.100 at Hierakonpolis (Case & Payne, 1962), then more and more in the funerary deposition of ceramics alongside the increased use of precious materials, and by the production of luxurious artefacts especially from Naqada III (c. 3200-3000 BC) onwards as a result of a consolidated trade between the Nile delta and the northern Levant. Cf. Wengrow 2006: 140-142.
  2. Here generally understood both in the form of written communication and competence in reading and writing (Baines 2007c: 147-148; 152-161; Baines & Eyre 1983, as well as Janssen 1992). The latter cannot be assumed for a non-royal audience in pre or early dynastic times. Concerning Egypt’s culture of written communication, cf. Morenz 1996.
  3. Wengrow 2006: 147.
  4. The so-called ceremonial knives, palettes and mace heads are the most striking evidence of the centralised early state (in terms of a single ruler) that more and more founded its identity and power via ritual actions. See Wengrow 2006: 176-187.
  5. Dreyer 1998.
  6. This has been suggested on the basis of the general structure of the tomb which its excavator G. Dreyer thought to have been the imitation of a palace (Dreyer 1998: 6) though no similar buildings have been found for that historical period (Wengrow 2006: 198).
  7. See the evaluation in Dreyer 1998: 136-145.
  8. Dreyer 1998: 138-145. According to Baines 2007a: 118-120 it is however highly unlikely that this actually can be taken as the very first Egyptian writing. It probably represents a stage of a longer development and the signs do not comprehensively express all aspects of language. Just as the later tags dating to dynasty 1(3000-2890 BC) which came from royal burials had a ceremonial intent, they were, nonetheless, based on an administrative system that is very difficult to reconstruct (Baines 2007a: 124-125). In general terms it is likely that in the beginning writing used in state administration was more reliant on the use of papyrus (Baines 2007a: 128-130).
  9. Hieratic was used at first mainly in administration, but later also for private letters, as well as literary and religious texts on papyri or ostraca, but also on walls and rocks in the form of graffiti.
  10. The connection between the writing system and the recording of spoken language is a crucial issue. However, for reasons of space, it won’t be considered in the present essay.
  11. That is to say mostly priests and scribes, since hieroglyphs were used to encode texts of a religious nature on monuments.
  12. On school training see McDowell 2000.
  13. The early artefacts which used both writing and representation were the so-called ‘palettes’ and came from Pre-dynastic temples. Cf. Wengrow 2006: 176-187.
  14. Baines 2007b: 285-287.
  15. Schäfer 1919. For critics, comments to this approach and further literature see Baines 2007d.
  16. The artefact which demonstrates this statement is the so-called Narmer palette now kept in the Egyptian Museum Cairo (CG 14716).
  17. This concerns also the development of Egyptian sculpture. This will not be taken into account here, because of the limited scope of the present essay.
  18. The audience addressed in the early stages of Egyptian representation was, apart from the gods, still unidentified (Baines 2007b: 295). However, the fact that both systems addressed different audiences characterises the Egyptian communication and media system in general though aspects related to literacy and social hierarchy always played a crucial role. 
  19. Baines 2007a: 144.
  20. Baines 1999.
  21. While the funerary chamber was located in the lower subterranean section, the upper part was accessible by the deceased’s family to perform the funerary cult.
  22. Cf. Burkard 1980.
  23. See the discussion in Blumenthal 2011: 54 with reference to Zinn 2007.
  24. Quirke 1996.
  25. McDowell 2000.
  26. Cf. the last overview on this topic by Blumenthal 2011.
  27. Mostly stone, but it could also be wood.
  28. Luiselli 2008. For a discussion of gestures as shown on amulets in the Eton College Myers Collection see the contribution by E. Millward in this project.
  29. To reconstruct oral tradition in ancient societies is very challenging and is the object of targeted studies. It will not be taken into account for this essay.
  30. Egyptian religion was based on cult and rituals, therefore Egyptologists face a high number of references to different rituals whose complexity can be reconstructed only in few cases.
  31. For a discussion of personal religion at Egyptian temples please see G. Heffernan’s contribution to this project.
  32. For instance the so-called intermediary statues were set in places accessible by common people and thus addressed to transmit personal issues to the deity worshiped in the temple. Cf. Galán 2003.
  33. The reason lies in the fact that a community linked by a common cultural background also shared a common system of signs which can be decoded. For the application of this principle to ancient Egypt, see Luiselli 2008.
  34. On the interpretation of ECM 638 as Sekhmet see Valentín et al 2005: 79 (nr. 56). Amulets dating to the same period as ECM 638 and representing Sekhmet could in fact support this interpretation. See for instance ECM 1716 (Luiselli 2010: 78, Nr. 66).
  35. On the nature and iconography of the goddess Mut in relation to Sekhmet see Wilkinson 2003: 153-156.
  36. Valentín et ai 2005: 79 (nr. 56).
  37. Stevens 2006 and 2009.


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