sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 3

Svenja C. Dirksen / Lena S. Krastel (eds.): Epigraphy through five millennia

In New Kingdom Egypt, quarrymen working at Gebel el-Silsila paid attention to the older (prehistoric) rock art carved onto stone outcrops: they avoided damaging them with their tools. [1] Rock art and graffiti continue to attract researchers today, in part because of the challenges of interpreting this material. The present volume admirably takes on this challenge in nineteen contributions; the time frame covered spans from the Epipalaeolithic to the Islamic period (and beyond). The thrust of the volume, as outlined in the brief editors' introduction (ix-xii), is towards contextualization, in line with recent epigraphic interest in materiality and spatiality. That is, looking at these carvings not as isolated reproductions on a page, but rather in their surrounding landscape/archaeological contexts. The volume succeeds at demonstrating the necessity of this approach: carvings may be found on rock walls with easy or difficult access; in groupings that accumulated over millennia; or at particular points of ritual, nutritional, or occupational interest in the landscape.

Nearly all the essays deal either with rock art (images of fauna, humans, ships, or geometric forms carved into stone faces) or with graffiti (which may also occur on rock outcrops, or at built sites such as temples). The area of study is Egypt and (in one case) northern Sudan. These aspects of the book may come as a surprise to readers, given that title of the volume mentions neither Egypt, rock art, or graffiti. Indeed, the traditional focus of epigraphic research (professionally prepared inscriptions on building walls, stelae, or objects) is absent from most contributions. [2] The reader may, of course, intuit the scope of the book from its emergence from two conferences of the DAI Cairo; an image of rock art appears on the cover. Still, one wonders whether a more descriptive title might not better convey the nature of the work. Presumably, the title is intended to link this volume to other epigraphic research focused on contextualizing texts and images - a worthy goal.

This goal is somewhat undercut, however, by the organization of the book. The essays are in alphabetical order by the author's last name. This results in contributions on the same site being separated. Ludwig D. Morenz and David Sabel both tackle rock art at Rod el-Air (Sinai) from complementary perspectives, but these two essays are separated by four intervening ones. Jitse H.F. Dijkstra, Tobias Krapf, and Hana Navratilova / Ian Rutherford all deal with the Temple of Khnum at Elephantine, but only the last of these essays gives much introductory material about the temple. Overall, twelve contributions deal with the Aswan region, but these are not grouped together, no introduction to the region as a whole is given, and no map indicates the areas covered. This may be acceptable for researchers familiar with Egypt, but if the goal is to link the (important) work published in this volume with other epigraphic research on the ancient world, a different presentation strategy is called for.

Despite these difficulties, the volume includes many valuable insights and methodological / theoretical reflections. Several contributions present the fruit of recent archaeological surveys. Common themes emerge from many of the essays. The first I will highlight is the importance of spatial distribution for the study of rock art and graffiti. Spatial distribution within a landscape is illustrated through marked satellite photos, some of which also include paths demonstrating (possible) movement through the landscape. Other contributions consider spatial distribution at the micro-level, examining an individual rock face or temple pavement for the accumulation of images/texts on them. David Sabel (295-315) details a method of phasing intersecting tools marks, allowing for the sequencing of lines carved on a single stretch of rock at Rod el-Air. This attention to spatial distribution within a landscape or at a particular site is a welcome improvement over older corpora, which often focus on individual images/texts.

Beyond documenting spatial distribution, several contributors attempt to make meaning from the locations chosen. Rebecca Döhl (73-92) takes a semiotic approach to multi-period rock art in Wadi Berber, Aswan, in order to understand what these "signs" communicate, arguing that they gave important information to viewers about territories, resources, and group identity. Adel Kelany (129-144) presents the first evidence for Epipalaeolithic activity at Aswan and notes that these rock art images were placed so as not to be easily seen; they might perhaps have been connected with water. This reviewer wonders whether human actions always make sense and can be explained through these frameworks, but in any case, the documentation of the spatial distribution is a valuable contribution. With Hana Navratilova / Ian Rutherford's analysis (225-234) of the location of Greco-Roman graffiti at the Temple of Khnum we are on firmer interpretive ground; the congregation of this graffiti (including one with a new local name for a god, Neilammon) near the Nilometer shows continuing interest in the river and probably a festival in this period.

While also considering spatial distribution, other contributions attempt to make meaning of the carved rock art motifs themselves. Salima Ikram (101-112) takes a traditional approach with an analysis of foot graffiti and Seth images in the Kharga Oasis: she argues that the motifs made these rock outcrops into sacred sites where people tried to establish metaphysical control over the fearsome desert by evoking the gods. Paweł L. Polkowski (255-283), by contrast, in the most theoretical and exciting contribution in the volume, argues that it is rather rock art that has agency over humans. He considers how prehistoric images such as giraffes may have acted within ancient ontologies and takes a biographical approach to rock faces that show dynastic/Greco-Roman foot graffiti congregating around carvings of prehistoric fauna.

A second theme that emerges from several contributions is the need to study figural and textual carvings together. The research of Jitse H.F. Dijkstra (61-71) and Tobias Krapf (157-167) on the Greco-Roman graffiti and statuary in the forecourt of the Temple of Khnum illustrates this, as does Linda Borrmann-Dücker's (13-32) interpretation of standing male figures of the pharaonic period at sites near Aswan: these "men at work" were engaged in protecting the border of ancient Egypt or facilitating trade across it, like the higher officials named in inscriptions. Ludwig D. Morenz (211-223) analyzes a mixture of text and images that he interprets as a work contract between an Egyptian and a Canaanite leader near the mines of Rod el-Air; it was from such intercultural, intermedial exchanges that the alphabet was eventually born. These two themes - the importance of spatial distribution and the need to consider figural and textual together - are in line with wider trends in the field of epigraphy.

The volume is lushly illustrated with numerous images, many in color; this is a real treat for the eyes. Digital enhancements of photographs and line drawings aid in depicting rock art otherwise impossible to see in photos. The production quality of the volume is generally high, although a printing error resulted in several pages missing from two contributions in my review copy.

The volume as a whole makes a valuable contribution to the study of rock art, graffiti, and inscriptions. It will be of interest to researchers of ancient Egypt and of other regions as well.


[1] Maria Nilsson and John Ward in this volume (235-254).

[2] The contributions of Mohamed A. Abd el-Latif Ibrahim (1-12, editions of three Islamic stelae), Lena S. Krastel (169-193, a rich and lengthy presentation of Coptic inscriptions from a former monastery near Aswan), and a few others do give first editions or improved readings of inscriptions, more in line with traditional epigraphic research.

Rezension über:

Svenja C. Dirksen / Lena S. Krastel (eds.): Epigraphy through five millennia. Texts and images in context (= Sonderschrift des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo; 43), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2020, XII + 315 S., 262 Abb., 10 Tbl., ISBN 978-3-447-11384-7, EUR 98,00

Rezension von:
Anna-Marie Sitz
Seminar für Alte Geschichte, Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen
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Anna-Marie Sitz: Rezension von: Svenja C. Dirksen / Lena S. Krastel (eds.): Epigraphy through five millennia. Texts and images in context, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2020, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 3 [15.03.2024], URL:

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