Archaeologists from Yale and the Royal Museums of Art and History in Belgium have discovered an ancient Egyptian "billboard" that might turn back the clock on when the hieroglyphic writing system was thought to be introduced to the general population. The huge inscriptions date back to about 3,250 BCE, and show a form of writing that was thought to only be used by the ruling class at that time.
The new writings were discovered on a hill in the desert of Elkab, which was a bustling area in ancient Egypt. While the hieroglyphs were widely known from tokens and labels at the time, it was thought that the written symbols were mostly used for bureaucratic purposes. But here they were, scrawled across a rock face along a well-traveled route like a road sign, indicating that the general public may have had access to writing earlier than previously thought.
"This newly discovered rock art site of El-Khawy preserves some of the earliest — and largest — signs from the formative stages of the hieroglyphic script and provides evidence for how the ancient Egyptians invented their unique writing system," says John Coleman Darnell, Yale professor and co-director of the Elkab Desert Survey Project. "This also suggests that there is a much more expansive use of the early writing system than is indicated from other surviving archaeological material."
Apparently, the team was "absolutely flabbergasted" by the discovery, due mostly to the size of the symbols. Where most are usually only a centimeter or two tall, these hieroglyphs measured more than 50 cm (20 in) and were carved into a tableau about 70 cm (27.6 in) tall.
"This discovery isn't new in the sense that this is the first time that anyone has seen these hieroglyphs; this is the first time that anyone has seen them on such a massive scale," says Darnell. "In the modern world this would be akin to seeing smaller text on your computer screen and then suddenly seeing very large ones made the same way only on a billboard."
The tableau is made up of four signs written right to left, which would become the dominant writing direction found in later Egyptian texts. The signs include a bull's head on a pole, two saddlebill storks standing back to back, with a bald ibis between them. These symbols are often seen in this formation in later texts that describe the solar cycle and luminosity, and according to Darnell, they may "express the concept of royal authority over the ordered cosmos."
The researchers are making use of new techniques to record the sites, by building 3D images out of photographs.