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Inscribing Ancient Egyptian Underworlds

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

Topics related to ancient Egypt belong to one of the most publicly popular ones in the field of archaeology. The lecture on Egyptian underworld inscriptions delivered by Jordan Miller was another evidence of this phenomenon, as the capacity of our online meeting was not sufficient to meet the demand of the audience. Some people simply did not get the chance to see the talk; therefore, this post wraps up its main points to provide you with a little taster of what you might have missed.

Hieroglyphic writing as a pictorial script inherently possesses certain specific attributes. Images instead of letters can literally “do” things. Therefore hieroglyphs have, in this sense, “lives” attached to them. The possibility that Egyptians believed that their writings were embedded with the essence of life is supported by the occasional finds of bodies wrapped in manuscripts. Additionally, if a specific sign was created to represent a deceased person, the depiction of this individual went on living long after their death. It goes without saying that concrete, pictorial representation of the person on walls or papyrus makes their presence much more tangible than hundreds of personal signatures made through an alphabetical writing system.

If we accept the premise that hieroglyphs were perceived as living pictures, then some representations could significantly change the context of the place where they were inscribed. For example, by depicting inhabitants of the underworld in the tombs, these tombs were literally transformed into a place out of our lived reality. The composition of displayed Underworld gods or other creatures encountered in the tomb chambers with the torch's flickering light might have added the illusion of motion to these images. Moreover, the actual presence of the underworld in the tombs meant that these were never intended to be re-visited. Such actions were undertaken only in extraordinary circumstances, covering the inside of the monuments with a veil of unknown and supernatural.

Jordan Miller also pointed out how the representations of the underworld were layered one upon another without the start or endpoints of these depictions. Therefore, these inscriptions exist independently as entities, and removing one of them does not change the overall context. Following that, the connection of the spatial and architectural aspects with after-life are idiosyncratic for each tomb. Because of that, these buildings could have enclosed separated and independent underworlds. This opens up the possibility that actually more similar underworlds existed parallelly in Egyptian cosmology.

Usually, we tend to ascribe material remains with archaeology while the written records are seen as a domain of historical enquiry. However, to understand the full complexity of hieroglyphic inscriptions, we must overcome such a dichotomous perspective. In this case, material/architectural and written needs to be perceived as complementary because hieroglyphs are simultaneously symbols and materials.

-Jakub Senesi

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