New Kingdom Identity Marks in Deir el-Medina

Symbolizing Identity: identity marks and their relation to writing in New Kingdom Egypt

The project Symbolizing Identity focuses on an ancient Egyptian marks’ system dated to approximately 1450-1150 BC. The marking system was used in the village community of Deir el-Medina; the settlement of the workmen who built and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt. The marks convey the identity of the individual workmen. They were used by semi-literates and professional scribes in administrative documents that record the work in the Valley of the Kings, as well as by the members of the community themselves in graffiti, on tools, and on domestic and funerary equipment. Although Deir el-Medina is known for the enormous amount of written documentation and while the percentage of literacy in the village was relatively high due to the nature of the work (± 40% against >1% for the whole of Egypt during pharaonic history), the marking system seems to have flourished in addition to writing.

The project focuses on the functional, archaeological and historical context of the marks, as well as on their exact nature, operation and their affiliation with writing. It makes use of archaeological, historiographical and theoretical (semiotic and cognitive) approaches to address the following questions:

  • Who used the marks and to what extent was their knowledge of writing influential in this use?
  • What is the purpose of the records composed with marks and what role do the marks play in the records?
  • The marks were used over a period of at least 300 years. How did the marking system develop through the centuries and how did it adapt itself to changing users and circumstances?
  • How does the marking system operate: how do the marks generate and convey their meaning? How do they signify?
  • What is the affinity between the marking system and communication in script: to what extent do the marks (pictorially and/or phonetically) relate to signs of writing? To what extent was script a source of inspiration for the creation or selection of the marks?

Furthermore, an important part of the research consists of comparative analysis. Marks are a universal phenomenon and comparative analysis may help to establish the nature of the marks, their functions and operation. Beside the marking system from Deir el-Medina there are several other ancient Egyptian marking systems (potmarks, quarry marks, masons’ and team marks used in construction), but marking systems from other times and other places are included as well in order to investigate how non-textual marking systems are used by humans to convey information in addition to the conveyance of information through systems of communication in script.

The project is supported by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NOW) and by the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University.

Project website:

K.V.J. van der Moezel (MA)

D. Soliman (MA)

Dr. B.J.J. Haring