Hieroglyph, Memory, and Literacy: Assessing Visual and Textual Ideology in Old Kingdom Royal Decrees

My dissertation project investigated Old Kingdom Egyptian documents used in communication contexts where power is unbalanced. Thanks to the generosity of the Theodore N. Romanoff Prize, I will be able to explore how authority was textually transmitted and understood among illiterate audiences as well. Using sociolinguistic, pragmatic, and political research from the theories of (Im-)Politeness and Critical Discourse Analysis, I seek to understand the processes of authority legitimation, inequality creation, and power reaction. In doing so, I am not relying on the, often deceitful, information that the texts explicitly provide, but on the details that are left unsaid to be grasped by common understanding. Therefore, this is primarily a study of ideology, community ethics, customs, and shared knowledge by means of language usage. The questions that I am looking to answer are: what were the mechanisms used by some to impose undesired tasks on others in the Old Kingdom? How do these change across different social contexts, and up to the First Intermediate Period? Did the state support inequality and coercion, or were there “unofficial” apparatuses that immediate communities used to encourage reciprocal help and solidarity? My main sources of study are private letters, letters from the king to his officials, and royal decrees. An emphasis on common grounds in these documents is visible in the appeal to peer altruism as the preferred persuasive device in personal letters, but also in the king’s replacement of coercive words with a language of voluntariness and proximity in his own commands.

However, what was the purpose of publicly displaying ideologically curated royal texts if these could not be understood by a majority of illiterate Old Kingdom Egyptians? One last medium to showcase shared memory, closely connected with communicated control, is hieroglyphic writing. By studying the royal decrees in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, I set out to test the possibility that words for royal institutions could have been semiotically understood by individuals who were “unable” to read, in a similar manner to modern traffic signs. Studying what sort of knowledge was selectively transmitted or restricted, I expect to unveil different levels of state-controlled literacies in the 3rd millennium BCE.