Ancient Egyptian cursive scripts

Ancient Egypt is known among others for its monumental and beautifully executed hieroglyphic characters. In addition, however, the Egyptians made use of various cursive scripts, some of which existed beside the hieroglyphic script for over 3000 years. They are the hieratic, cursive hieroglyphic, and abnormal or cursive hieratic scripts, and were written with a reed brush and carbon ink on papyrus, linnen, leather, wood, and pottery, or they were scratched into rock.

Schreibgerät Gardiner Sign-list Y4 (links) und hieratische Version (rechts)
Writing utensils Gardiner Sign-list Y4 (left) and the hieratic version (right)

The ancient Egyptian root for the words "script", "writing", and "scribe" (sesh) is written with a sign that depicts writing utensils: a tube case to hold the brush, a leather bag with ink pigments, and a palette with cups for two different colors of ink. The cursive scripts were learned before the hieroglyphic script was mastered. They were the primary scripts used in administration and for communication among scholars, priests, officials, and scribes, but also for poetry, scientific, religious, and funerary texts.

The project

The cursive scripts have never been systematically explored, neither in terms of their peculiarities in orthography, abbreviation, functions, uses, and historical development, nor in their comparison with the monumental hieroglyphic script and the demotic script (a late script with a strongly cursive character that developed from hieratic).

The standard reference for the cursive scripts is the work by Georg Möller. His Hieratic Palaeography (Hieratische Paläographie) contains lists with hieratic forms from the early dynastic period to Roman times. It is, however, over 100 years old and takes only 32 text sources into account. More recent studies of the cursive scripts generally focus on one source or a small group of sources within a specific time frame, and as such only partially supplement Möller's work. The comparative analysis of all studies and palaeographies is, however, difficult, or almost impossible, among others because of the heterogeneity of the writing materials, the quality of the facsimiles and photos, the (digital) treatment of the signs, and the choice of examples.

In April 2015 the long term project "Altägyptische Kursivschriften" (Ancient Egyptian cursive scripts) started with jobs at the Institute for Ancient Studies - Egyptology at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and at the Institute for Linguistics and Literary Studies - Computer Philology at the Technischen Universität Darmstadt. The project was kindly granted by the Union of German Academies of Sciences (Union der deutschen Akademien der Wissenschaften). With the help of an internal project database, in which cursive palaeographic material from existing palaeographies as well we from new and future studies can be taken in, the cursive scripts can be systematically analysed.

The goals

The goals of the project essentially concern:

  1. the develpment of a digital palaeography of the cursive scripts covering all epochs of cursive hieroglyphic, hieratic, and abormal or cursive hieratic from the early dynastic period to Roman times;
  2. a systematic analysis of various aspects of the cursive scripts, among others by supplementing the Trismegistos Dateabase with additional, extensive metadata that will allow research into various topics such as origins and development of the scripts, regional use, context, economics, and the materiality of writing, and possibly the identification of individual hands.