Researchers identify Ancient Egyptian ’emoticons’ made by workers of royal tombs

ancient-egyptian-emoticons-tomb-workers_4Egyptian inscribed ostrakon. Credit: Deir el Medine Database.

With the widespread influence of social media, emoticons have played a significant role in modern communication through their ‘simplistic’ pictorial scope. However as it turns out, similar forms of pictorial ’emoticons’ were also used by the ancient Egyptians, as analysed specimens from the settlement at Deir el-Medina reveal. In a research conducted by Kyra van der Moezel (as a part of PhD at the University of Leiden), it was found that the settlers of Deir el-Medina – mostly constituting workers and artisans who furnished the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings (Tutankhamen’s resting place), on the west bank of the Nile, used identity marks. Mostly etched on potsherds or drawn as graffiti on necropolis stone walls, these marks were found to have pictorial values that were probably associated with expressing information – much like modern emoticons.

Now from the archaeological perspective, the village of Deir el-Medina, which in ancient times was known as Set Maat (‘The Place of Truth’), is significant for its wealth of written sources, including texts covering avenues like law, commerce, economy and even literature. Furthermore the Egyptian site is instrumental (for historians) in shedding light into the community life of Ancient Egyptians over a period of 400 years, from 1550 – 1070 BC. Suffice it to say, archaeologists were already aware of the aforementioned pictorial symbols; but unfortunately for the most part these marks were dubbed as ‘funny signs’. But as Van der Moezel explains –

Under the guidance of lecturer Ben Haring we have now managed to interpret most of these symbols. You can compare them to pictograms today, like information symbols at airports or product logos. They all have an inherent meaning, but are not related by any linguistic rules. The rules governing how words and sentences are formed don’t apply here. The symbols use other means of expressing information.


Egyptian inscribed ostrakon. Credit: Deir el Medine Database.

Simply put, the symbols go beyond the framework of any language, though a few of them were indeed derived from the standard language. Other marks as expected were composed from geometrical shapes, like squares, circles and triangles. In fact, some of the symbols are pretty similar to the ones used in modern-day communication applications, like WhatsApp. Van der Moezel said –

These pictograms depict images of animals, objects or professions, for example. They were used in two different ways. First of all metonymically, whereby the symbol refers directly to what the person who drew it wanted to convey. The scorpion hunter of Deir el-Medina, for example, was represented by a scorpion symbol. The Egyptians also used the pictograms metaphorically. A well-known Egyptian metaphor is, for example, ‘as fast as a jackal’, which could explain why a worker is represented by the image of a jackal.

And while historically we have an accepted notion that pictorial depictions (as opposed to written language) are generally representative of a primitive culture, practicality states otherwise. To that end, these Egyptian marks were used long after the advancement of the workers’ actual language, possibly because of the simple effectiveness of these symbols, much like modern emoticons. Van der Moezel chimed in –

People often assume that identity signs are ‘more primitive’ than written language, and that writing will slowly but surely take over from symbols. However, what we see is that writing and symbols continue to exist alongside one another. There is some interchange between the two, but symbols have never been ousted as a means of communication. Symbols continue to be useful because you can express a lot more in a single symbol than in a letter or a word.


Scene from the Tomb of Sennedjem. Wikimedia Commons.


Deir el-Medina

Source: University of Leiden

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