“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing.”Banksy (2001)

1. Introduction

In addition to formal reliefs and texts, the tombs of the Saqqara New Kingdom necropolis bear hundreds of unofficial inscriptions and depictions, some incised, some executed in red or black pigment.1 These “graffiti” dating to the Pharaonic Period are a commonplace phenomenon in the Nile Valley and its surrounding deserts, and depict humans, animals and different kinds of objects.2 Despite their proliferation, until recently there were very few monuments in Egypt for which a complete inventory of the graffiti had been published,3 and several publications tended to consider only textual graffiti.4 Traditionally, non-textual or figural graffiti were rarely noted or recorded. Instead, they were often perceived as “visual noise”, obscuring the aesthetics of the tomb2 or temple decoration, or as mindless defacements of monuments. While this preoccupation with written evidence has been somewhat symptomatic for Egyptological studies on the whole, it is also partly due to the inherent challenges that figural graffiti present to academic research.5 In general, they have proven difficult to date and interpret because the images vary greatly in quality and in the manner in which they are executed. Some are incised deep into the stonework and elaborately drawn, while others are little more than superficial, crudely-executed scratches. Yet the main challenge in documenting them lies not per se in the interpretation of the objects they depict, but in the interpretation of their meaning, attempting to answer such questions as: “why was this graffito made?”, “why was it made in this location?”, and “who was the graffitist?”6 In many cases, the best that can be expected is to identify reasonable possibilities by comparing the likeness of the graffito to analogous motifs and symbols, and by studying the graffito’s relationship to its surrounding architecture, installations, and other objects inside the relevant space.

Notwithstanding the challenging nature of their interpretation, figural graffiti are of genuine interest and significance to scholarship. Textual and figural graffiti are both embedded in a built as well as a social environment, and provide mementoes of former visitors to a monument and clues about how people interacted with functioning or possibly desolate structures. They represent categories of tangible proof of the reception of a structure and about its “resonance”, albeit negative or positive. Understanding this resonance will allow researchers to address important social questions such as who does what, where, when, including or excluding whom, and why, for any sort of structure.7 More interestingly still, textual and figural graffiti may provide different windows into history. When literacy was the accomplishment of a minority, as was the case in New Kingdom Egypt,8 written graffiti were without doubt mainly the work of scribes or literate individuals belonging to the elite and sub-elite administration.9 It is no wonder, therefore, that traditional accounts of written graffiti paint a somewhat tautological picture of a literate section of society visiting necropolises and leaving graffiti.10 However, there is no obvious reason to assume that figural graffiti should necessarily be interpreted within a similar framework.11 Rather, the question arises whether figural graffiti were just as socially restricted as their textual counterparts, or whether they may reflect a means of recorded expression for the illiterate and/or less literate section(s) of the Egyptian population to make reference to popular customs and beliefs.12 The vast majority of the figural graffiti in the New Kingdom tombs at Saqqara do not convey the impression of being created by an (artistically-)educated section of society. Rather, they may well have been created by a broad variety of people: commoner, priest, or nobleman; man, woman, or child, whether literate or not. Thus, while written graffiti express the perspectives of the educated elite and sub-elite, figural graffiti may cross social divides and reveal folk practices and beliefs that have left a mark in them. This potential interaction between different groups participating in the same social system and built environment would be of particular interest and make figural graffiti an exciting data source to illuminate a previously shadowy area of Egyptian religious history: the study of aspects of popular piety.13

Such were the considerations which motivated the authors to undertake the first systematic large-scale survey of textual and figural graffiti in the New Kingdom necropolis at Saqqara (Leiden-Turin concession area).14 The latter provides a privileged setting for a holistic analysis of graffiti because it is a well-preserved space with a substantial corpus of published textual and figural material.15 This may allow observations that shed light on the motivations behind both categories of graffiti, and may facilitate an assessment of their relative cultural significance. Rather than discussing all the graffiti recorded so far, many of which are badly eroded and largely indecipherable, this contribution provides a summary of some of the more significant and evocative discoveries. It first considers the content and form of particular groups of textual and figural graffiti and assigns them to provisional classifications based on their purpose, distinguishing between devotional, ritual, and secular graffiti.16 It then investigates the spatial distribution and relative importance of textual and figural graffiti, as this may provide insights into how space was used, where textual and figural3 graffiti have a tendency to appear, and in what way textual and figural graffiti were conditioned by the space in which they were executed. However, as a preliminary it may be useful to define what is meant by “graffiti” in this contribution.17 This contribution continues to use the term in the somewhat inconsistent Egyptological manner, extending the narrow etymological sense of the word (from graffiare, “to scratch”) to include all deliberately “added” markings that are either incised into, scratched on, or painted onto the tomb’s architectural features.18

2. Function and content

2.1 Graffiti as a devotional act

Today the word “graffiti” tends to carry a negative connotation and conjure up images of vandalism. However, ancient Egyptian attitudes towards graffiti appear to have been very different and largely lacked the modern connotations that associate graffiti with destruction, defacement, and lawlessness.19 Because of the inherent magic of texts and images,20 graffiti had the capacity to be benevolent, commemorative expressions that kept the names and identities of individuals magically alive and communicated them to contemporary and future generations.21 When applied in temples and tombs, graffiti were also a means of contacting the deceased and the gods of the necropolis.22 Such a desire for “otherworldly” interaction is made explicit in the so-called “piety-oriented” graffiti, in which the graffitist invokes the deities of a site, not only on behalf of himself but occasionally also on behalf of family members.23 Although not stated as unambiguously, certain groups of figural graffiti also seem to aim to interact with an eternal audience, such as the incised footprints or sandals (plantae pedis) on the pavement of the tomb of Maya and Meryt (Fig. 1)24 and on a statue niche in the tomb of Horemheb (Fig. 2).25

Incised footprints on the pavement of the tomb of Maya and Meryt. Dimensions: unknown. From Martin, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, I, 2012, pl. 61.30. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

Incised footprints on a statue niche in the tomb of Horemheb. Dimensions: each foot c. 25 x 9.5 cm. Drawing from Martin, Memphite Tomb of Horemheb, I, 1989, pl. 149. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photograph by Nico Staring, colours digitally enhanced using DStretch.

Such graffiti are relatively commonplace along the Nile Valley, and are also found, for example, on the roof of the temple of Khonsu in Karnak, where many such examples were left by the lower clergy of the temple.26 In contrast to their more elevated colleagues, these priests could not afford temple statues similar to those that have been found in large quantities in the “Karnak Cachette”. However, by inscribing their name, title, and/or footprints on the temple roof, these priests too would remain forever in the presence of “their” god, as some texts accompanying some of the feet explicitly state (Fig. 3).27 The graffiti of feet or sandals in the Saqqara necropolis were presumably similarly intended to place the graffitist into the permanent, sacred space of the tomb, and bore the hope that through these incised figures the funerary gods and/or the deceased could be reached. Because they represent the desire for an interaction between the devout and divine these graffiti can be considered the product of a devotional act.28 To fully grasp the nature of these devotional graffiti, it is necessary to consider their appropriation of the sacred context of the temple or tomb. The latter functioned as “liminal zones” where a dialogue between the devout and the divine or the living and the dead could be established.29 It may be significant too in this respect that many devotional graffiti were carved into the sacred world of the temple of tomb, becoming one with it.30 The very permanence of incised figures may also have been a mark of their potency. By carving the inscription the graffitist produced an image4-5 that was much more durable than a painted message, and so ensured that his or her appeal would endure as long as the tomb or temple itself.

Fig. 3

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Incised footprint on the roof of the temple of Khonsu at Karnak, dating to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. Dimensions: 41 x 39 cm; length of footprints 24 cm. The accompanying text states that the graffito is intended to make the name of the graffitist “endure” (imi mn rn=i) in the temple of Khonsu for ever and ever. From Jacquet-Gordon, Graffiti on the Temple Roof, 2003, pl. 106.275. Image courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Other examples of devotional graffiti exist in the Saqqara area, for example in the pylon entrance of the tomb of Maya and Meryt31 and the inner courtyard of the tomb of Tia and Tia,32 where graffiti of personal names and titles were carved next to figures of offering-bearers belonging to the official tomb decoration (Figs. 4–5).

Graffiti of personal names and titles carved next to figures belonging to the official tomb decoration in the pylon entrance of the tomb of Maya and Meryt. Drawing from Martin, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, I, 2012, pl. 12. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photographs by Nico Staring.

Graffiti of personal names and titles carved next to figures belonging to the official tomb decoration in the inner courtyard of the tomb of Tia and Tia. Drawing from Martin, Tomb of Tia and Tia, 1997, pl. 37. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photograph courtesy of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

In the case of the tomb of Maya and Meryt the carved titles are all connected with the Treasury, of which Maya was the overseer, while in the tomb of Tia and Tia the graffitists consistently identify themselves as “servants”. Therefore, the clear suggestion must be that by naming the figures in the tombs, Maya’s and Tia’s subordinates were marking their perpetual presence in their patrons’ following in a manner comparable to the plantae pedis. Because of the graffitists’ close relationship with the deceased, it is certainly possible that these inscriptions were envisaged as very direct and personal appeals and may have involved human sentiments of direct involvement, admiration, and concern.33 Perhaps leaving such graffiti was part of a cathartic experience that enabled healing for those who took solace in the belief that these inscriptions afforded a continued contact, or even existence, with the deceased.34 Their purpose may also have been to affirm and reinforce Maya’s and Tia’s status in the underworld, ensuring that the group and its hierarchy would continue in the hereafter. It is even possible that piety and self-interest were tangled and the graffitists wished to share in the wealth of their powerful overseers6 by associating themselves with figures in the tomb decoration, which would allow them to partake of any offerings made in the tomb and benefit from the magical efficacy of the tomb’s representations.35

While allowing for some ambiguity, it is possible that other graffiti, that were less directly or even unassociated with the official tomb decoration, should also be interpreted as meaningful, devotional messages. This may apply, for example, to signatures or short texts indicating names and titles. On the south wall of subterranean room K in the tomb of Maya and Meryt there are three hieratic dipinti in black pigment that were written upside-down and plastered over while the pigment was still wet (Fig. 6).36 Two of the dipinti are names (4mn[tA.wy?] and 2ay) and one may represent a cartouche.

Fig. 6

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Two hieratic dipinti of personal names in subterranean room K in the tomb of Maya and Meryt. The dipinti were written upside-down and plastered over while the pigment was still wet. Dimensions: 18.8 x 7 cm; 6.8 x 12 cm. From Martin, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, I, 2012, pl. 59.2–3. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

The practice of writing graffiti upside-down and subsequently concealing them has a striking parallel in medieval churches, where names or abbreviations of names were sometimes incised at locations that were hidden from view, for example written upside-down high on a column or plastered over.37 As a result, such graffiti could not be seen or read by ordinary people. Instead, they were purportedly aimed at an eternal audience, in this case God, who could read the graffiti from above.38 It is tempting to interpret the plastered-over graffiti in Maya’s tomb in a similar fashion. Perhaps they were intended to be “read” by the deceased, the deities depicted in the decoration of the subterranean parts of the tomb,7-8 or both. However, it cannot be excluded that these graffiti had a more utilitarian function and were connected to the construction of the tomb.

There are indications that figural graffiti could also be used to convey devotional messages. For example, in a scene from the tomb of Djehutymes (Bub. I.16) in the Abwab el-Qotat/Bubasteion area, diminutive figures were added to an offering scene in a different style, possibly enlarging family numbers, while in the nearby tomb of Ptahmose (Bub. II.x) a small naked boy and a larger bending figure were added in a “scribal” hand to an offering scene. These graffiti bear tangible witness to a physical interaction with their sacred surroundings and seem to symbolically mark the permanent presence of the persons depicted in the inscriptions, forging a material and immaterial future where desires for posthumous interaction were solidified.39 It is important to acknowledge here that, because of the inherent magic of pictures, these graffiti would have been directly associated with an individual in much the same way as an inscribed signature would have been, setting the need for literacy aside.40 As such, they may represent a directly personal interaction between the individual and the deceased that did not require the mediations of a trained priest or scribe.

Other types of human figures were possibly also intended as expressions of devotional interaction. Graffiti of figures in poses of adoration,41 in particular, may be considered as prayers cast in pictorial form that were set in stone for the enduring benefit of the deceased (Fig. 7).42

Graffiti of human figures in poses of adoration in the tombs of Tia and Tia (above, left) and Maya and Meryt (above, right, and below). Dimensions: Tia, 23.2 x 16 cm; Maya, 17.4 x 8.1 cm. From Martin, Tomb of Tia and Tia, 1997, pl. 93.324, and Martin, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, I, 2012, pl. 61.27. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photograph by Nico Staring.

Two graffiti in the tomb of Maya and Meryt depicting women with unguent cones on their heads are also noteworthy in this context, both for their location, medium, and skill of execution (Fig. 8).43

Two graffiti in burial chamber O of the tomb of Maya and Meryt depicting women with unguent cones on their heads. In both cases, the graffiti are unobtrusively placed below depictions of Meryt in two separate scenes. Dimensions: 10.5 x 8 cm; 19.8 x 9.3 cm. Drawing from Martin, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, I, 2012, pl. 60.14–15. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photograph by Nico Staring.

These graffiti are located in Burial Chamber O in the subterranean part of the tomb at a depth of almost 22 m below the surface, and were executed in black pigment by a skilled (perhaps professional) draughtsman, who was careful to respect the existing tomb decoration. In both cases, the graffiti are unobtrusively placed below depictions of Meryt – in two separate scenes – clearly indicating that defacement of the monument was not the intention of the graffitist. Rather, their systematic placement appears to associate the graffiti with the recurring figure of Meryt. Perhaps they depict one or more of Meryt’s family members, and were intended, albeit in visual form only, to establish an intimate link with the body of Meryt, which was interred in this very room.44 The supposition that these graffiti were not momentary ideas or inspirations, but well thought-out messages with symbolic efficacy is also hinted at by the medium in which they are executed. If the graffiti were applied underground, the draughtsman would have9 gone through the effort of carrying a scribe’s outfit down two deep shafts and would also have taken a light source of some sort. On the other hand, if the graffiti were applied prior to the placement of the blocks in the subterranean part of the tomb, they can still be interpreted as devotional messages as in this case the graffitist may have anticipated the placement of the blocks in the burial chamber.45 In either case, it appears that the placement of these graffiti deep underground was deliberate, and so their location must have been deemed significant.

It certainly seems possible that some of the devotional graffiti discussed here were left by the illiterate, more humble section(s) of the Egyptian population. That the Saqqara necropolis was accessible to different levels of Egyptian society, at least during the later New Kingdom, seems clear from the presence of secondary, modest burials in or adjacent to many of the monumental tombs.46 Indeed, there may have existed a degree of conceptual equivalence across the domains of leaving graffiti in tombs and burying the deceased in simple pit-burials inside or near the tombs of the highest elite. These burials can perhaps also be interpreted as premeditated devotional acts aimed at posthumous interaction with the tomb owner, particularly in the context of the tomb of Horemheb, which became the focus of a cult. At the same time, they may have aimed at posthumous upward mobility or attempted to benefit from the magical efficacy of the tomb’s representations.

2.2 Graffiti as a ritual act

In addition to devotional motivations, there are indications that point to a ritual dimension for certain groups of graffiti.47 Repetition and standardisation are commonly recognised features of ritual.48 As already noted by Helck,49 certain types of written graffiti follow firmly established formulae and are extremely repetitive in their content.50 Fischer-Elfert and Kahl therefore suggested that writing visitors’ graffiti was a topic taught at “school”.51 The subgroup of antiquarian or descriptive graffiti, which praise specific monuments and their owners, may particularly be considered a ritualised reaction to what is commonly called the “Address to the Living”.52 In this address, which is not only inscribed on tomb walls but also on stelae and statues, tomb-owners ask passers-by or visitors for offerings or a prayer.53 In ancient Egypt the survival of an individual was amongst other factors linked to the memory of his or her name, which was revitalised each time it was pronounced or even read. Thus, to keep the name of a person alive through a graffito, by identifying a certain monument with the name of its owner, can be interpreted as a benevolent, ritualistic act.

Textual graffiti may not have been unique in their capacity to materialise ritual acts. Certain types of representations, especially those of an intrinsically religious nature, such as gods (Fig. 9), point towards a ritual dimension for some of the figural graffiti as well.54

Fig. 9

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Graffito of the god Ptah in the inner courtyard of Tia and Tia, scratched on the flat upper surface of the unfinished triad statue. Dimensions: 4 x 2.5 cm. From Martin, Tomb of Tia and Tia, 1997, pl. 93.320. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

Most striking in this respect is a group of nine graffiti of standing jackals depicted atop standards in the tomb of Ptahemwia (Fig. 10). The standards are often accompanied by a bulge that is otherwise commonly identified as a uraeus.55 Although identifying labels are absent, it is reasonable to assume on the basis of analogous pictorial evidence that these images represent either Anubis or Wepwawet. Both these canine gods are intimately linked with the funerary cult, and it should therefore not be a matter of surprise if several ritual acts involving them were to be found amongst the graffiti in a tomb. Two aspects of these figures stand out in particular. First, differences in style and technique – most figures being scratched, but some being incised – strongly suggest10-11 that the jackals were applied by different individuals, each with their own idiosyncratic modus operandi. Second, all jackals face west and are oriented towards the inner sanctum of Ptahemwia’s central chapel. This distinct pattern suggests that the orientation towards the focus of the funerary cult was an important part of the graffiti’s creation. The frequency and the recognisable system in which these graffiti occur suggest that they were purposeful messages with symbolic efficacy. This impression is enhanced by the medium in which most examples were executed. No less than eight out of nine specimens were originally painted in red ochre, implying that those responsible for their execution had to bring writing equipment to the tomb.

Graffiti of standing jackals atop standards in the tomb of Ptahemwia. Drawings and photographs by the authors.

While it is difficult to establish the exact reasons for creating these graffiti, one may perhaps assume them to be a means of communication with the divine, intended to secure divine protection for the graffitist, the tomb-owner(s), or both.56 If so, these graffiti were expressions of awe and piety intended to propitiate the benevolent aspects of mortuary deities to obtain safe conduct in their domain. Anubis’ role as guardian of the necropolis and Wepwawet’s capacity of psychopompos would certainly fit such an interpretation. Representations of Anubis sitting atop a shrine and protecting the deceased are very common from the Middle Kingdom onwards, and occur on a great variety of objects as well as in tomb paintings.57 While jackal graffiti have not been found elsewhere in the Leiden-Turin concession area, they appear to have been commonplace throughout the Nile Valley. For example, a jackal head graffito is incised in the tomb of Aper-El at the Abwab el-Qotat/Bubasteion.58 Parallels are also present in tomb N13.1 in Asyut, where three representations of dogs/jackals have been found. One of these may have been represented on a divine stand.59 Even more striking are the graffiti of standing jackals incised on a Thirteenth Dynasty stela from Abydos that is now kept in12-13 the Louvre (Louvre C8) (Fig. 11).60 As with the graffiti in the tomb of Ptahemwia, these figures appear to have been executed by several individuals using different styles and techniques, and are all facing a representation of Min-Horus to whom the adorations on the stela are dedicated.61 Jackal graffiti thus seem to occur repeatedly, over prolonged periods and at widespread locations. The placement of these graffiti on tomb walls and stelae furthermore appears to follow a recognisable system in that they are oriented towards important foci of the funerary cult. As such, it is tempting to interpret them as standardised ritual acts, possibly reflecting folk practices and beliefs connected to the maintenance and protection of the deceased. The fact that each jackal graffito in the tomb of Ptahemwia respected previous inscriptions, and was in turn, respected, would also suggest that such practices were considered both appropriate and accepted forms of devotion.62 None of the jackal graffiti suffered defacement, despite being obvious to the casual observer due to the sharp contrast between the red pigment and the white limestone background.

Graffiti of standing jackals incised on a Thirteenth Dynasty stela from Abydos (Louvre C8). Dimensions: c. 10.9 x 16.4 cm (above); c. 9.9 x 8.9 cm (below). Drawings and photographs by Nico Staring.

Other figural graffiti such as those depicting tyet knots, wedjat eyes, or lotus flowers, may also have served an apotropaic purpose. A graffito of a tyet knot occurs in the tomb of Maya and Meryt, where it is incised into a painted tyet knot belonging to the official tomb decoration (Fig. 12).63

Graffito of a tyet knot in the tomb of Maya and Meryt. Dimensions: 15.6 x 7.2 cm. From Martin, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, I, 2012, pl. 59.1. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photo by N. Staring.

The tyet was closely associated with the goddess Isis and widely used as an amulet. According to Book of the Dead spell 156 it was considered a powerful charm for the protection of the deceased in the afterlife.64 The wedjat eye, which is depicted in a graffito in Ptahemwia’s courtyard (Fig. 13), is perhaps the best known of all Egyptian protective symbols.65 According to one myth it represents the eye of Horus which was plucked out by the god Seth and later restored by the god Thoth, making it into a symbol of wholeness, good health, and regeneration. Others associate it with the eye of Ra, which functioned as a violent force that subdued the sun god’s enemies. The wedjat may therefore be imbued with both the healing power of the “sound eye” of Horus and the protective power of the ferocious goddess who was the eye of Ra.66 With these properties, the wedjat was clearly a motif well-suited to benevolent, ritualistic expressions associated with the protection of the deceased.67 It features prominently in the decoration of New Kingdom tombs and also occurs on pyramidia, door lintels, and the lunette of stelae, often in combination with other protective symbols such as the shen ring and depictions of Anubis recumbent on a shrine.

Graffito of a wedjat eye in the tomb of Ptahemwia. Note that the graffitist made a mistake in the depiction of the markings around the falcon’s eye, curling the “teardrop” below the eye instead of the marking to its left. Drawing and photograph by the authors.

Lotus flowers, likewise, had many positive symbolic connotations. All growing plants were inherently symbolic of new life, but because the blue lotus flower (Nymphaea caerulea) closes and sinks under water at night only to rise and open again at dawn, it had particularly strong connotations of creation and rebirth.68 Lotus images may also have evoked the image of the infant sun god, born from the primeval lotus, and thus symbolise the hope of rebirth.69 It are perhaps such associations that account for the presence of the two lotus graffiti in the tomb of Ptahemwia (Fig. 14), with further examples being attested in the tomb of Maya and Meryt,70 Horemheb,71 and Ramose.72 The solar association of these graffiti is perhaps hinted at by their location. No less than 10 out of the 11 examples in the Leiden-Turin concession area have been inscribed on the entrance doorway or east wall of the first courtyard of the tomb, and are thus oriented towards the rising sun.

Graffito of a lotus flower with 9 petals, 2 lotus flowers, and a shallowly scratched stem in the tomb of Ptahemwia. Drawing and photograph by the authors.

The group of ritual graffiti can possibly be extended by including certain groups of animal graffiti, most notably depictions of baboons and lions. Although the baboon (Fig. 15) was associated with several deities, in particular Thoth, the funeral context of the graffiti suggests that they here may represent Hapy, one of the Sons of Horus, who was concerned with the protection of the deceased.73 Brown quartzite statues attributed to this god were found at Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple at Thebes, one of which bears witness to the protective nature of the god in the epithet “he who cuts off the face of him who cuts off your face”.74 Alternatively, some of the baboon graffiti may depict Thoth, the patron god of scribes, in the guise of a baboon. Thoth’s epithet “true scribe of the Ennead” denotes his mediating qualities in the divine world, and perhaps some graffitists were invoking this intermediary role when scratching Thoth’s representations into the walls of tombs.75 Even if the proposed associations with Hapy or Thoth were incorrect, the baboon’s ferocity would14-15 still make it a dangerous, apotropaic intercessory in the afterlife.76 It is also possible that graffiti of baboons were linked with rebirth and regeneration as a result of the baboon’s sexual activity.77

Graffito of a seated baboon on a pillar from the tomb of Ptahmose. Drawing and photograph by Nico Staring.

Graffiti of lions (Figs. 16-17)78 can possibly also be interpreted as symbols associated with protection, death, and rebirth.79

Graffito of a lion in the tomb of Horemheb. Dimensions: 16.2 x 25.2 cm. From Martin, Memphite Tomb of Horemheb, I, 1989, pl. 147.15. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photograph by Nico Staring.

Graffito of a lioness in the tomb of Maya and Meryt. The skilful execution of the drawing suggests that it was the work of a professional draughtsman. Dimensions: 12 x 14.4 cm. From Martin, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, I, 2012, pl. 62.38. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photograph by Nico Staring.

The lion’s extraordinary strength, ferocity, and courage in combat rendered it a suitable protector and guardian against evil forces. This symbolism is evident on amulets, royal thrones, and various types of ritual furniture, such as funerary couches and embalming tables (Fig. 18).

Relief showing the vignette of Book of the Dead spell 151, depicting the vigil for Osiris during the embalming process. The mummy of Maya lies on a funerary couch decorated with lion heads. Note also the two recumbent jackals on shrines. The text accompanying the bottom jackal unambiguously states its apotropaic function: “Anubis, who is on his hill, who protects the burial (or “sarcophagus”) of this Maya”. From Martin, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, I, 2012, pl. 44; translation of text: Id. p. 44. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

The lion was also portrayed on feeding cups for infants,16 magic wands, and rods. On the basis of the occasional inscriptions that accompany these representations, it is clear that they provided protection for pregnant women and infants, whom the Egyptians considered especially vulnerable to evil forces.80 From an early age, sculptures of lions were also occasionally set up flanking the entranceways to shrines and temples. Lions depicted in shrines also occur in tombs in the Valley of the Queens and private tombs at Thebes, where they are part of a series of apotropaic deities protecting gateways (Fig. 19).81

Depiction of two shrines with a recumbent jackal and lion in the early Nineteenth Dynasty tomb of Amenemope (TT41) in Thebes. Both animals can be interpreted as protectors and guardians of gateways in the Underworld. Image adapted from Assmann, Das Grab des Amenemope, 1991, pl. 66.

Leonine imagery furthermore abounds in ancient Egyptian religious iconography and is associated with various deities in the Pharaonic pantheon, including lioness goddesses such as Tefnut, Pakhet, Bastet, and Mut. Most notably, there was Sekhmet, the consort of Ptah at Memphis, who was represented as a woman with the head of a lioness. The name of the goddess, “The Powerful One”, refers to her wild and potentially dangerous character, which was a common feature of leonine goddesses.82 Sekhmet was considered the protector of the Pharaoh and the gods, and beginning in the Eighteenth Dynasty (as early as the reign of Thutmosis III), she had a special place of reverence in the southern part of the pyramid temple of Sahure at Abusir as “Sakhmet of Sahure”.83 Graffiti, stelae, and private votive statuettes found at the site provide evidence for the existence of a cult. It may be this goddess who is represented in a lioness graffito in the tomb of Maya and Meryt (Fig. 17). Lions also had strong solar associations. Most notably, the lion-god Aker guarded the gateway to the Netherworld through which the sun-god passed each day, allowing him to be born each morning and die each evening. In sum, lion graffiti in tombs may be interpreted as potent symbols of protection and/or rebirth, ensuring that the deceased would be protected and reborn in the afterlife.

Graffiti of geese (Fig. 20) may likewise be associated with the regenerative associations of the animal.84 According to Coffin Texts spell 223, the world hatched out of an egg laid by the “Great Cackler” or “Great Honker”, and the deceased is himself presented as another egg inside that Great Cackler waiting to hatch in the same way. In Pyramid Texts spells 336a/b and 1122a/b the deceased king hopes to ascend to the sky in the form of a goose. Funerary statuettes of geese discovered in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings are presumably a later expression of these regenerative ideas.85

Graffito of a goose in the tomb of Horemheb. Dimensions: 7.8 x 11 cm. From Martin, Memphite Tomb of Horemheb, I, 1989, pl. 147.16. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

A graffito of a goose on the roof of the Khonsu temple at Karnak (Fig. 21) can potentially be interpreted17 as a symbol of Amun. The Nile goose was associated with this god because of its association with the creation of the primeval world.86

Graffito of a goose on the roof of the temple of Khonsu at Karnak. Dimensions: 24 x 30 cm. From Jacquet-Gordon, Graffiti on the Temple Roof, 2003, pl. 53.140. Image courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Another graffiti-motif with a probable apotropaic function is that of the warrior with shield and spear (Fig. 22).

Graffito of a warrior with a shield and spear in the tomb of Maya and Meryt. Dimensions: 6.4 x 4.6 cm. From Martin, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, I, 2012, pl. 61.27. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

This motif is reminiscent of depictions of hieracocephalous deities found on Late Period ostraca in the Saqqara area (Fig. 23). These have been interpreted as depicting Horus combating Apophis, as represented, for example, on contemporary hypocephali.87 It is possible that these ostraca, like certain types of graffiti, should be interpreted as products of meaningful ritual acts rather than mere trial pieces or idle sketches.88 This hypothesis is not unattractive as the imagery of other ritual graffiti, such as lions,89wedjat eyes,90 lotus flowers,91 and gods,92 commonly appears on ostraca found in the New Kingdom tombs at Saqqara.93

Late Period pottery ostracon with a depiction of a hieracocephalous deity holding a spear, painted in black pigment. Dimensions: 13.5 x 15.9 x 1.8 cm. From Martin, Three Memphite Officials, 2001, pl. 33.63. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

Particularly suggestive of a ritual function are two ostraca from the tomb of Tia and Tia, which contain a part of the Htp-di-nsw formula (Fig. 24), and a depiction of a smoking, arm-shaped censer with the name of Amun in hieroglyphs below (Fig. 25).94 The Htp-di-nsw formula is a well-known offering connected with the provision of the deceased that is understood as part of a ritual,95 while censing rites were endowed with magic and associated with themes of rejuvenation and deification.96

Pottery ostracon from the tomb of Tia and Tia showing part of the Htp-di-nsw formula. Dimensions: 5.2 x 6 x 0.8 cm. From Martin, Tomb of Tia and Tia, 1997, pl. 104.74. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

Pottery ostracon from the tomb of Tia and Tia showing a censer and the name of Amun written in hieroglyphs below. Dimensions: 8.8 x 6.2 x 0.85 cm. Drawing from Martin, Tomb of Tia and Tia, 1997, pl. 104.75. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photograph courtesy of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

In some cases the ritual interpretation of ostraca gains additional support from the character of their decoration. While certain examples contain depictions of great artistic merit (Fig. 26), others bear only crudely executed representations that can hardly be considered trial pieces or sketches for wall reliefs18 from the hand of an accomplished draughtsman (Fig. 27). Like graffiti, ostraca could be created by individuals at little to no financial cost to themselves. In addition, ostraca were highly portable, meaning that they could have been prepared at a time and place convenient to the donor, for example within the home, in anticipation of a visit to the necropolis.

Pottery ostracon depicting two nearly identical kneeling bowmen. The figure on the right is painted in black only. The figure on the left, on the other hand, is executed in red and corrected in black, which may indicate that this was a pupil’s copy. Dimensions: 11.8 x 9.9 x 0.65 cm. Drawing from Raven et al., Memphite Tomb of Horemheb, V, 2011, p. 105, Cat. 107. Image and photograph courtesy of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

Limestone ostracon with a painted representation of Ptah with wAs sceptre and manxt tassel. The outlines of the figure are roughly incised. Dimensions: 12.5 x 11.5 x 2.5 cm. Drawing from Raven, Tomb of Maya and Meryt, II, 2001, pl. 31.34. Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society/Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photograph courtesy of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

Further possible ritual graffiti include a graffito on an unfinished stela from the tomb of Mery-Neith.97 This graffito depicts a standing mummy that is being held by a kneeling widow (Fig. 28).

Fig. 28

PPTOriginal

Graffito of a standing mummy embraced by a kneeling widow incised on the lower slab of a stela that was probably never carved. The slab was found in the tomb of Mery-Neith. Dimensions: 44 x 18 cm. From Raven et al., Tomb of Meryneith at Saqqara, 2014, p. 81 [4]. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

The scene is very similar to offering scenes attested elsewhere in the Leiden-Turin concession area.98 For example, a scene in the tomb of Khay shows Khay’s mummy standing in front of his tomb-chapel with his widow kneeling at his feet and his son burning19-20 incense.99 Above, 12 columns of text illustrate the depicted activity, reading:

“Burning incense for Osiris, foremost of the West, Wenennefer, lord of the [Sacred Land?], that he may give offerings which come forth (upon his altar) to the Osiris, the overseer of traders Khay, [justified]”.

Potentially, the graffito in the tomb of Mery-Neith acts as a synecdoche for such an offering scene, in which case its ritual connection to the maintenance of the dead would be clear.100

The large numbers of ship graffiti in the Saqqara necropolis are more ambiguous in nature.101 The ships in the necropolis represent modest river boats rather than sacred barques, and as such their creation may be rooted as much in mirth as in piety. Twentieth-century ship-graffiti from Newfoundland, Canada, suggest that of key significance may be their potential to convey the relative importance of ships and shipping within the society of the graffitists.102 The Nile was a vital waterway for the transportation of people and goods from the earliest times of Egyptian history. It would not be a matter of surprise, therefore, if similar ideas prompted the production of a number of Egyptian ship graffiti (Fig. 29,30). Another possibility is that certain ship graffiti simply represent idle sketches. Ships form a common element of the tomb iconography of all periods and could have inspired graffitists to create similar images. On the other hand, the funerary context of the graffiti may also suggest that they had a deeper meaning. Perhaps ship graffiti in tombs were intended to provide symbolic transportation for the deceased to help them undertake journeys in the hereafter, such as the pilgrimage to Abydos.103 It is also possible that ship graffiti were left as a thanksgiving for a safe passage to the tomb104 or commemorated the presence of the graffitist in a manner comparable to the plantae pedis.105 It may be significant in this respect that nearly all of the ship graffiti in the New Kingdom necropolis were left at tomb entrances.

Graffito of a ship with a slightly curved body in the tomb of Ptahemwia. Drawing and photograph by the authors.

A crudely-drawn ship with oars in the tomb of Horemheb. Drawing and photograph by the authors.

The meaning of gaming board graffiti is also open to various interpretations (Fig. 31). These graffiti may simply have provided a physical surface for mundane amusement, but they also could have carried ritual connotations. The introduction to Chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead describes the deceased playing the game of senet. The accompanying vignette shows the deceased seated at a checkerboard playing against an invisible opponent. The lack of an opponent suggests that, at least during the New Kingdom, senet became a metaphor for the deceased’s journey into the afterlife in which winning the game was equated with a safe arrival and acceptance in the underworld.106 Perhaps graffiti of gaming boards were made with this idea in mind and were intended to be used by the deceased to ensure his or her rebirth. It is also possible that such boards were used by the living to ritually ensure the well-being of their deceased relatives.

Graffito of a gaming board scratched on a column bases in the tomb of Horemheb. From Martin, Memphite Tomb of Horemheb, I, 1989, pl. 46.10. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. Photograph by Nico Staring.

As suggested by an inscription from the Saite tomb of Ibi, copying parts of the tomb decoration may sometimes also have been encouraged by the deceased.10721Most remarkable in this context is the attempt by a graffitist to copy a depiction of Ptahemwia on the north wall of his tomb (Fig. 32). Because all images of the deceased, in relief or painted depictions or even in spellings of their name, could function as a secondary repository for the spirit, leaving such images may have been considered a benevolent act.

Graffito copying a depiction of Ptahemwia on the north wall of the tomb. The graffito was carved on the east wall of the tomb in viewing distance of the original. Drawing by the authors. Photographs courtesy of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.

A special group of graffiti that has so far remained unmentioned is that of depictions of royalty. The marked stress on such graffiti in the Leiden-Turin concession area has been connected with the later cult of Horemheb and his queen, Mutnodjmet, who was buried here, when this king’s private tomb was nominally transformed into a royal memorial temple.108 The limestone elements of the entrance gateway to the tomb display a marked patina and numerous shallow scratches, as if they were exposed to the elements and suffered from the passage of numerous visitors. It does not seem unreasonable to postulate that some participants of the cult left graffiti of royalty, most notably royal heads, as part of ritualistic acts. Perhaps these graffiti served as votive offerings seeking grace or giving thanks to the King. Several graffitists may have subsequently deviated from their course and left graffiti of royalty in the surrounding tombs as well (Fig. 33).109 While this association between the cult of Horemheb and the graffiti of royalty is plausible, it is important to note that royal head graffiti are not restricted to the Saqqara area alone. Similar representations can be observed in Abydos,110 Asyut,111 and Karnak,112 albeit much less frequent in number. However, at places like Abydos and Karnak there would have been numerous royal figures in the existing temple decoration that could have inspired graffitists to create similar depictions. In private tombs the situation was very different – especially at Saqqara where, compared to Thebes, only a limited number of tombs contained official depictions of the King.

Graffiti of two royal heads with blue crown adorned with a uraeus in the tomb of Ptahemwia. Drawing and photographs by the authors.

When drawing these seemingly disparate motifs together, it becomes clear that many figural graffiti represent symbols that focus on themes of rebirth, regeneration, and the protection of the deceased. This choice of subject matter, combined with the funerary context of the graffiti, suggests that such symbols were left as part of a conscious effort by the living to influence the fortunes of the deceased.113 At the same time, graffitists may have aimed at receiving benefits and blessings for themselves in return for the services rendered. The Addresses to the Living suggest, at least, that the deceased were willing to reciprocate appropriate and intended behaviour by the living:

“It is one whom the king loves, it is one whom Anubis loves, he who will…, I will be [their backer] in that noble [council], (for) everything effective and special that has been done for (me)”.114

If the purpose of the accessible spaces of a tomb was to provide a space to commemorate and perform rituals for the deceased,115 then leaving protective symbols in the form of figural graffiti can be understood as meeting such expectations. They can be seen as part of the Besucherkult, answering to the implicit and, in case an Address to the Living was present, explicit wishes of the tomb-owner for22 maintenance and protection.116 Navrátilová117 and Ragazzoli118 already made a similar argument with regard to visitor inscriptions (Besucherinschriften). However, figural graffiti, too, can be seen as part of the magical mechanics that the living employed to interact with the deceased and the funerary gods after burial.

Importantly, Navrátilová and Ragazzoli both embed the phenomenon of graffiti making within a broader framework of commemoration and representation that was practised by the literate elite. Yet, the strong emphasis on written graffiti necessarily restricts the range of practitioners to this group. If, on other hand, the idea is accepted that literacy was not a requirement for the production of figural graffiti in tombs,119 then it is possible to suggest that graffiti making may also represent aspects of popular piety at its most fundamental level, namely the informal, directly personal dialogue between an individual, the deceased, and the gods of the necropolis. Educated scribes and priests were in many ways essential to the performative magic of the tomb and the circulation of offerings, but it must be acknowledged that a large number of illiterate and less-literate individuals would also have been able to interpret and react meaningfully to information presented in tombs in the form of an image.120 The use of items such as amulets cut across boundaries of wealth and class.121 It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that many ancient Egyptians would have been familiar with the significance and basic meaning of common religious symbols such as the wedjat and could have drawn from this knowledge to encode and decode messages and desires through figural graffiti.122 The contents of humble graves throughout Egypt furthermore suggest that the same basic necessities for maintenance and protection in the afterlife applied whatever the economic level of the deceased.123 As a corollary, it is highly likely that many Egyptians would have understood the function of a tomb or a grave as a place of commemoration and cult and had some understanding of what kind of behaviours and practices were appropriate and desired in a funerary landscape.124 It should be stressed that cues for expected modes of conduct were also encoded in the built environment itself, in the architecture, decoration, and furnishings of the tomb, which would have helped to make behaviour more constant and reduced the problem of totally idiosyncratic interpretation of the tomb space.125 Such non-verbal prompts would have been much more “readable” and easier to decode when the tombs were still in use, and ritual actors, their dress, behaviour, interaction, language (e.g. incantations), sounds, and smells could still be directly observed by visitors to the necropolis.

Whereas the traditional trappings of self-presentation and religious expression in elite burials, such as stelae and statues, were expensive and exclusionary, graffiti could be created by individuals at no financial cost to themselves. They can perhaps be interpreted as low-cost forms of representation and commemoration that met the affordances and restrictions of the poorer and illiterate echelons of Egyptian society.126 Just because graffiti would have been free or inexpensive to make is no reason to suppose that they would have been considered of lesser value than more formalised modes of ritual expression. The existence of invocation offerings, which caused no financial hardship for the speaker but nevertheless benefitted the deceased, clearly indicates that the value of ritual action was judged in more ways than simply financial. In fact, graffiti may have been considered a particularly-valued component of the cultic “tool-kit” because they produced an enduring effect by being incised into the very fabric of the tomb itself. This means that graffiti, unlike statuettes, stelae, and ostraca, could not be easily removed from the tomb or de-contextualised.

2.3 Graffiti as secular expressions

While many textual and figural graffiti can be interpreted as resulting from ritualised or devotional acts, this by no means holds true for all ancient graffiti. The reason for choosing more secular motifs, such as certain geometric patterns, may rather have been driven by a jeux d’esprit or boredom. Although geometric shapes may have been used as identity markers in a pseudo-script,127 this is often difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt, at least in the context of the Saqqara necropolis. Geometric shapes also do not appear to have had any intrinsic or apparent ritualistic properties.128 Examples of jeux d’esprit in the tomb of Ptahemwia may include a hieratic graffito, including part of the scribal text23Kemyt, made by an apprentice scribe practising his art (Fig. 34).

Hieratic inscription in red ochre, consisting of one unframed column of hieratic and two horizontal lines with several loose signs without coherent meaning. The unframed column contains the first sentence of a well-known scribal exercise, the so-called Kemyt: “It is a servant who addresses his lord, whom he wished to live, be prosperous and healthy.” Possibly the two separate groups to the left and right can be translates as “Au”, who is the chief protagonist of the narrative section of the Kemyt. Demarée, Saqqara Newsletter 7 (2009), pp. 11–12. Drawing and photograph by the authors.

Making graffiti as part of an informal, pleasurable activity is also mentioned in textual graffiti commemorating a “stroll” in which the graffitist explicitly states that he came to visit the necropolis simply to “amuse” or “invigorate” himself.129 While such mundane scribbles may approximate modern connotations of the term graffiti as mindless defacements, one should here too remain cautious not to make too apodictic statements. Most remarkable, especially given their significant quantity, is how unobtrusive the graffiti in the Leiden-Turin concession area are. Most graffiti are careful to respect the existing tomb decoration, the majority being located on the dado of the limestone casing and on undecorated wall surfaces in the courtyard. While this may be hardly surprising from a practical point of view – graffiti are better visible when not interfering with existing decoration and their size and number is also dependant on the amount of relatively flat space available – this observation does suggests that defacement of the monuments was not the intention of those who left graffiti in the tombs of the Leiden-Turin concession area.130 There is no erasing of elements or attempting to “appropriate” the tombs; indeed, many of the graffiti hardly aimed at attracting an observer’s attention. Many examples are only shallowly incised below eye level and are quite difficult to discern even at close inspection, especially in direct sunlight. This suggests that the physical presence of the graffiti within the sacred space of the tomb was more important than their visibility.

3. Spatial distribution and relative importance of figural and textual graffiti

The following section considers the distribution and relative importance of textual and figural graffiti in the Saqqara New Kingdom necropolis as a whole, as this may provide insights into how space was used, where graffiti have a tendency to appear, and in what way(s) graffiti were conditioned by the space in which they were executed. A corpus of 243 graffiti was compiled from nine New Kingdom tombs (224 graffiti) and stone elements from the Saqqara New Kingdom necropolis presently in public or private24 collections (19 graffiti).131

Out of the 243 graffiti identified, 202 are figural (83.1%) and 41 (16.8%) textual. This shows that in the Saqqara New Kingdom necropolis it was far more common to leave figural graffiti than to leave texts.132 The textual graffiti can be subdivided according to script: hieroglyphic (n=19) and hieratic (n=22). The almost even distribution of hieroglyphs and hieratic is noteworthy.133 Hieroglyphs were normally used only for monumental texts, whereas hieratic was used for quotidian purposes such as writing administrative documents, legal texts, and letters. Although scribes generally would have been more familiar with hieratic, many of the graffitists in the New Kingdom tombs appear to have adapted their script to “fit” the monumental hieroglyphs used in funerary contexts, which were aimed at securing eternity (Fig. 35).134 This use of the hieroglyphic script may reflect an immersion of the graffiti in the “divine” world of the deceased rather than them being embedded in the “profane” world of the living through the use of hieratic.

Hieroglyphic graffito in proper sunk relief in the tomb of Horemheb (second pylon, doorway), mentioning the sculptor Pendua. Dimensions: 4.6 x 18.6 cm. Photograph by Nico Staring.

Following Dijkstra,135 the figural graffiti can be divided into eight groups: human figures (n=95), human feet (n=9), animals (n=32), flowers (n=9), boats (n=18), geometric forms (n=18), furniture (n=3), and miscellaneous (n=18) (Fig. 36).136The “human figures” category is the largest, with 95 examples. Of these, 40 depict only heads. “Animals” represent the second largest category. Most species are only attested once (bovid, dog, crocodile, fish) or twice (horse, lion). Only three species occur more often and across several tombs: jackals (n=11), monkeys (n=7), and birds (n=5).

Graffiti groups recorded in the New Kingdom necropolis at Saqqara. Graph by the authors.

The spatial distribution of figural graffiti (Fig. 37) shows that there was a clear preference to leave figural graffiti in tomb entrances (40.1%). The courtyards of the tombs were also a popular space for leaving figural graffiti (32.7%). Further into the tomb, towards the west, the number of figural graffiti decrease, and only very few figural graffiti are found in the chapels at the rear end of the tomb.137

Distribution of figural graffiti in the Saqqara New Kingdom necropolis, Leiden-Turin concession area. Map by the authors.

While at first glance it may be somewhat surprising to find so many figural graffiti in the relatively narrow entrances and passageways of tombs, the entrance is a place where a visitor may pause to get his or her bearings upon entering the tomb. Additionally, it may have been a pleasant location to sit in hot weather as there may have been shadow or a cooling draught. People would also have passed through entrances relatively frequently, thereby increasing the potential for inscribing, reading, and responding to existing graffiti.138 On a more metaphysical level, the25 doorway may perhaps have been considered a liminal zone par excellence, being a boundary between the realm of the living (profane) and the realm of the dead (sacred).139 The courtyard, on the other hand, was a space where people spent time waiting during services in honour of the deceased,140 which may have encouraged them to leave a graffito on the wall. In this large open space graffiti would also remain longer in the vision of earthly visitors and thus would have a greater chance of being read or seen by anyone entering the tomb.141 In contrast, the less spacious side-chapels may have functioned as storage quarters and been less accessible. As evidenced by the tomb of Ptahemwia, at least some chapels,26 at a later stage, received subsidiary burials, restricting access and by extension the opportunity to leave graffiti. In contrast to figural graffiti, entrances do not appear to have been spaces of particular interest for leaving textual graffiti (Fig. 38). Most textual graffiti (29.2%) are located in courtyards, particularly in the second courtyards of the larger tombs, where they are inscribed in the vicinity of doorways and on stelae. There is a remarkable clustering of textual graffiti on the second pylon of the tomb of Horemheb, which suggests that graffitists were not only inspired by notions of space but also by already present graffiti. The same has been observed elsewhere in the Saqqara necropolis. For example, in Djoser’s South Chapel graffitists attack each other, not by damaging each other’s graffiti but by strongly commenting upon them.142 A rude graffito in Userkaf’s pyramid complex can potentially also be interpreted as a comment to an existing text.143

Distribution of textual graffiti in the Saqqara New Kingdom necropolis, Leiden-Turin concession area. Map by the authors.

When the ratio of textual to figural graffiti is compared by tomb (Table 1; Fig. 39) it becomes clear that visitors to the tombs of Horemheb and Maya depended more on the written word than those to other tombs.144 The tomb of the deified pharaoh had become a pilgrimage destination during the Nineteenth Dynasty, and as such may have attracted a greater number of elite or educated visitors than the surrounding tombs. When the ratio between textual and figural graffiti is compared with contexts outside of the funerary sphere another interesting point is revealed. Most notably, in temple contexts the emphasis on the written word is much higher still than in the tombs of Horemheb and Maya.

Table 1

PPTOriginal

Overview of the ratio of figural vis-à-vis textual graffiti per tomb, with some temples added for comparison. * Graffiti described as “modern” have not been taken into consideration. ** Figural graffiti with accompanying inscriptions have been counted as written graffiti. Figural graffiti forming composite scenes have been counted as a single graffito. Where similar motifs were added together without forming a composite scene, they have been counted individually.

Ratio of figural and textual graffiti in selected monuments. * Graffiti described as “modern” have not been taken into consideration. ** Figural graffiti with accompanying inscriptions have been counted as written graffiti. Figural graffiti forming composite scenes have been counted as a single graffito. Where similar motifs were added together without forming a composite scene, they have been counted individually. Graph by the authors.

However, based on these varied locations, it should not be surprising that a highly variable picture emerges in terms of the relative emphasis on textual or figural graffiti. Such variations ultimately reflect different sets of people frequenting different kinds of monuments for different reasons. As suggested by Navrátilová,145 diversity and representation are key words for describing ancient Egyptian graffiti, but this diversity can only be properly assessed and made visible if textual and figural graffiti are investigated as part of an integrated approach. Only then is it possible to consider the full range of human activities and social forces that resulted in their production.

Finally, it is possible in some cases to reconstruct the position that a graffitist assumed while making a27-28 graffito by assessing the distance between the graffito and the original pavement level. For the present study, walls were divided into segments: 0–50 cm; 50–100 cm; 100–150 cm; 150+ cm (Fig. 40). The majority (31.7%) of figural graffiti were added on the walls’ lower sections, which indicates that graffitists most commonly assumed a seated or crouching position while making a figural graffito. This tendency differs from that observed for textual graffiti, where a slight preference for a standing pose was observed.

Distribution of graffiti over wall sections in the New Kingdom necropolis at Saqqara. Graph by the authors.

4. Conclusion

Although textual graffiti are common in the Saqqara New Kingdom necropolis (n=41), they are in a vast minority when compared with figural graffiti without associated text (n=202). It is clear, therefore, that by considering only the written evidence, previous studies of ancient Egyptian graffiti in the Saqqara necropolis have captured only part of a much larger phenomenon of graffiti making. The strong emphasis on written graffiti may also have introduced a significant social bias into their results as the written evidence necessarily restricts the range of graffitists to the literate members of the elite and sub-elite. The execution and content of figural graffiti, on the other hand, potentially hint at wider engagement and may allow access to a broader section of ancient Egyptian society. In keeping with the imagistic principle of Egyptian magic, figural graffiti would have been directly associated with an individual or an object in much the same way as an inscribed name or text and they would have been just as powerful magically speaking, setting the strict need for literacy aside. As such, figural graffiti in tombs may represent a meaningful and directly personal interaction between the graffitist, the deceased, and the funerary gods that did not require the mediations of a trained priest or scribe.

Admittedly, the interpretation of figural graffiti is challenging and subjective. However, it is often possible to isolate reasonable interpretations by taking a close look at the context of the graffiti and by drawing upon the meaning and significance of similar motifs and symbols on other artefacts. As argued in this contribution, one should be cautious against drawing solid boundaries between textual and figural graffiti as the two are not necessarily disarticulated conceptually and may have been created with comparable intent.146 In some cases the choice for one medium over another may have had to do more with the limited literacy rates and the problems of dissemination of information carried in word and image than with different motivations for the production of a graffito. It has been shown here that figural graffiti in tombs are rich in magical and mythological symbolism and can often be interpreted as figural prayers in their own right. Such figural graffiti, like many of their written counterparts, were intended to reconstitute links between the living and the deceased, secure benefits and blessings for the graffitist, or protect and beatify the deceased in the afterlife. As such, both textual and figural graffiti can be seen as part of the social and ritual interaction of which Egyptians wished to be part after their death and burial,147 and as supplements to the more formal accoutrements of self-presentation and religious expression in the mortuary sphere, such as statues and stelae, many of which were expensive and exclusive. In contrast, graffiti could be created by individuals at no or very little financial cost to themselves, making it a form of representation and commemoration that was within the means of the lower echelons of Egyptian society. As indicated by the presence of secondary burials, people with modest means had access to the Saqqara necropolis, at least during the late New Kingdom, and it seems likely, therefore, that visits to the necropolis were part of the lifeways of a broad range of people. The artefacts found in these secondary burials, particularly amulets, suggest that the people interred in them would have been familiar with the meaning and significance of common religious symbols, such as the wedjat eye. They could have drawn on this knowledge to encode and decode messages through figural graffiti and use them to guide behaviour towards particular goals. Of course, there is little doubt that the scribal elite and sub-elite also produced figural graffiti, as people may choose to draw instead of write (or use a combination of the two) for a variety of reasons. However, this interpretation must not stand at the beginning but at the end of a comprehensive contextual analysis.

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Appendix

Overview of the corpus

Docx

Overview of the authors’ corpus of 243 graffiti from the Saqqara New Kingdom necropolis (224 from tombs, the remaining 19 from architectural elements presently in public or private collections).