Summary of the 'Pictorial Aspects of Ancient Texts' AMME Seminar

The second AMME seminar of the spring season was held on the 7th of March 2024. Both talks shed light on new details concerning literacy and writing conventions in their respective fields.

The first talk given by Dr. Victoria Almansa-Villatoro presented a revision on the idea of literacy in Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period Egypt. Studying Old Kingdom royal decrees Dr. Almansa-Villatoro has concluded that these texts were intended for a wider audience than those possessing high literacy. They were presented in public places, such as temple porticos. Why present texts to people if nothing could be communicated with them? Dr. Almansa-Villatoro argues that in the Old Kingdom context text written in the hieroglyphic were more accessible than previously thought.

Orality and literacy complete each other in the hieroglyphic: the inscriptions were accessible because they relied on oral memory represented visually. This is possible because ideograms represent iconically what they mean, while phonetic writing necessitates understanding of grammar and a large amount of phonetic signs. Similarly the spatial arrangement itself, of both individual signs and units of text, could provide a narrative meaning not expressible linguistically. The information communicated, which the people must have heard by word of mouth as well, becomes intertwined with the text’s iconic presentation. 

Dr. Almansa-Villatoro compared the publically available royal decrees to the closed-off pyramid texts, pointing out that the more closed-off a text is the more phonetic it is. The pyramid texts use more phonetic complements to indicate the grammatical role of the words, while this is far less common in texts presented publically. As the public texts were intended for a wider audience they are also more iconic than the closed-off texts.

Dr. Almansa-Villatoro’s sample text Koptos B summarised this interestingly. The text presents the same decree three times, each presentation less and less iconic. The first part is “highly iconic”, uses spatial arrangement to convey meaning, and addresses general and titled audiences – a less literate audience. The second part is “medium iconic”, uses basic grammar, and addresses titled audiences – a more literate audience. The third part reproduces the original letter of decree the local administration received: it is “low iconic”, fully grammatical, and addresses (implicitly) named individuals using second person pronouns and politeness. Thus many levels of literacy are accommodated in one public decree – both those seeking a quick understanding of the text and those seeking detailed information. Although such written texts might have been more symbolic than practical, they indicate the state’s intention to disseminate information and empower the people against possible abuse – eg. in the case of tax exemptions. 

Dr. Almansa-Villatoro asserts literacy having been a spectrum, and that texts were composed to accommodate this variation. These texts were not written for us to read, which is why we need to acknowledge the context we are missing –  the visual conventions and symbology familiar to the intended audiences, if not to us. She proposes we should be speaking of information access instead of literacy.


The second talk given by Associate Professor Annic Payne presented a case-study on a divergent reading of the Luwian theonym Kubaba in the Anatolian hieroglyphic: an “extra” logogram for ‘bird’, AVIS, occurring inside the spelling of her name. If understood as a hieroglyph it defies the known conventions of the Anatolian hieroglyphic. This is why it has been understood as a pictorial attribute of Kubaba. Dr. Payne argues for going further, understanding it as pictorial commentary.

Dr. Payne gives three options for what could be going on. First, the extra sign could be a phonetic syllable, to be read out pronouncing the name. This is difficult, as the whole name Kubaba is already spelled out. Second, the sign could be a semantic sign, either a logogram to be read in Luwian, or a classifier to guide the reading process but not meant to be read aloud. These are difficult as well: the name already has the divine classifier DEUS in the correct position, and a logogram is not supposed to appear in the middle of a word. Finally, the sign might not be a sign of writing at all, and is not meant to be “read”. The problem in this is that the sign itself is a hieroglyph used in writing elsewhere, not an image unidentifiable as a hieroglyph.

Dr. Payne described her consulting an expert on identifying birds to take a look at the different presentations of the AVIS sign. It turned out that the common denominator between the different visual representations of the sign is a generic concept of “birds of prey”. This works in the case of the sign not used as writing but an additional iconographic representation of the characteristic of the goddess as ‘the mistress of wild animals’. The awkward position of the sign speaks for it to be more of a pictorial comment meant for a different kind of reader.

Dr. Payne understands this as a case of meta-discourse; writing and commentary on it. Drawing the sign inside the theonym evokes the domain of the goddess and brings it near to her reach. Also a reader with a linear reading process, coming across the sign, would have “stumble over it” – and Dr. Payne argues this is intentional. A functional shift occurs in the midst of writing, an interruption in the reading process, which makes the reader aware of the meta-discourse. There could also be additional connotations included, be it ornamental, playful, religious inter alia, but these are out of our reach as we miss the original cultural context.

Dr. Payne emphasises this would not be a way to understand hieroglyphic writing in general. Instead this would be a case of “limited exploitation of iconic potential” in names, particularly divine names and possibly in the names of kings. She sums it up as “high status interference writing”.


We would like to thank both speakers, as well as all the attendants, of an excellent seminar. Please join us in the next AMME seminar on Tuesday the 2nd of April 2024 (16:15-18:00 EEST) on the theme of Animals of the Ancient World.