03. December 2020

The oldest "place name sign" in the world The oldest "place name sign" in the world

Egyptologists at the University of Bonn decipher a rock inscription from the late fourth millennium B.C.

Together with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, researchers from the University of Bonn have deciphered the oldest place name sign in the world. An inscription from the time of the emergence of the Egyptian state in the late fourth millennium B.C. from the Wadi el Malik east of Aswan, which is still barely explored archaeologically, bears four hieroglyphs: "Domain of the Horus King Scorpion".

The rock inscription
The rock inscription - with the four hieroglyphs: "Domain of the Horus King Scorpion". © Ludwig Morenz
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"This ruler called 'Scorpion' was a prominent figure in the phase of the emergence of the first territorial state in world history," says Egyptologist Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz from the University of Bonn. The ruler lived around 3070 B.C., his exact dates and the length of his reign are not known. The name "Scorpion" is written together with three other hieroglyphs on a rock inscription discovered more than two years ago in a side wadi of the Wadi Abu Subeira to the east of Aswan: "Domain of the Horus King Scorpion". A circular hieroglyph indicates that it is a place name. "This makes it the oldest known place name sign in the world," says Morenz.

There are very few sources about the political, social and economic conditions under which people lived more than five thousand years ago. "This is precisely why the new discovery of the rock inscription is so valuable," says the Egyptologist. The very early use of the cultural practice of writing in this rather remote place is unusual for the fourth millennium B.C. Despite its brevity, the inscription opens a window into the world of the emergence of the Egyptian state and the culture associated with it. Morenz: "For the first time, the process of internal colonization in the Nile Valley becomes more visible by writing."

Egypt as first territorial state in the world

According to the researcher, Egypt was the first territorial state worldwide. "There were already ruling systems elsewhere before, but these were much smaller," says Morenz. It has been known for some time that the north-south extension of Egypt at that time was already around 800 kilometers. "In fact, several rival population centers merged into the new central state," says Morenz. Royal estates, known as domains, were founded on the periphery of the empire in order to consolidate the pharaonic empire.

An administration had already developed during the fourth millennium, as can be seen from the titles of civil servants and the taxes and duties. These duties are evidence of socio-economic dependencies and are based on control, hierarchy and a special power of the ruler as Horus-God and at the same time earthly equivalent. "The boundaries between symmetrically and asymmetrically conceived dependencies seemed to be rather fluid at the time," says Morenz. This meant that the symmetrical principle of give-and-take could shift to an asymmetrical one of strong exploitation.

Various names of economic entities (domains) are already known from smaller text carriers such as labels for goods deliveries, cylinder seals and container labels. The rock inscription makes such a royal domain tangible as a concrete archaeological place for the first time. In addition to various rock carvings, other early rock inscriptions were discovered here and found together with pottery from this period. "This area is still in the early stages of archaeological investigation," says Morenz. The researchers see this as an opportunity to take a closer look at the momentous process of the world's first state emergence. This included the expansion and securing of the dominion at the edges in the Nile valley and the consolidation of the then new kind of kingship.

For several years, scientists of the Department of Egyptology at the University of Bonn have been working together with Abdelmonem Said and Mohamed Abdelhay of the Aswan Office ("Taftish") of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. The research team had already documented several rock carvings dating back to the Neolithic. The project was developed within the framework of the Collaborative Research Center "Power and Domination" in the Egyptology sub-project ("The two bodies of Horus. Royal ideology and its manifestation in the formative period of Egyptian kingship") and is additionally integrated into the Bonn Cluster of Excellence "Beyond Slavery and Freedom".

The study is presented as the first volume in the new series "KATARAKT. Aswan Archaeological Working Papers" newly founded by the Department of Egyptology at the University of Bonn.

Publication: Ludwig D. Morenz, Abdelmonem Said, Mohamed Abdelhhay: Binnenkolonisation am Beginn des ägyptischen Staates. Eine Fallstudie zur Domäne des Königs SKORPION im späten Vierten Jahrtausend v. Chr., EBVerlag, 188 pages, 29,80 Euro. The book is written in German and includes an Arabic translation.

Media contact:

Prof. Dr. Ludwig D. Morenz
Universität Bonn
Abteilung für Ägyptologie
Tel. +49-228-735733
E-mail: lmorenz@uni-bonn.de

Drawing of the four hieroglyphs:
Drawing of the four hieroglyphs: - The circular sign at the end indicates that this is a place name. © Drawing David Sabel
The research area Wadi el Malik
The research area Wadi el Malik - east of Aswan with figures engraved in rock. © Ludwig Morenz
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