Ancient Egypt Research Associates

Posted by John Nolan

It’s been a very busy 18 days for the AERA Sealings Team, consisting of Ali Witsell (University of Chicago graduate student and AERA Publications team member) and John Nolan (AERA Associate Director and Senior Epigrapher). Way back on April 7th we hit the ground running, trying to catch up with the past two field seasons’ worth of unprocessed clay sealings and then focusing on the sealings from the next area to be published in a full-length monograph, Area AA.

For the uninitiated, clay sealings are the bottle caps of Ancient Egypt. These pieces of highly refined clay were used to cover the mouths of jars as well as to seal doors, boxes, bags, and even papyrus documents during the Pyramid Age. They were often impressed with cylinder or stamp seals bearing titles or graphic imagery, or incised with a stylus.

We are often able to recreate entire seal designs, or at least sizeable parts of a sealing by looking for matches or “duplicates” within the corpus. Here you see such a match, showing the same part of the seal on two different sealings. (Photo by Ali Witsell)

Once these sealings were broken in the past, they were simply discarded as trash and have since found their way into the back rooms, unused hallways, and garbage dumps in the Heit el-Ghurab site. According to our meticulous method Ali and I have been sorting out pieces of ordinary mud, and counting, weighing, and registering the thousands of sealing fragments that awaited us when we first entered the Giza lab almost three weeks ago. So far, it has been an amazing season of discovery.

Thanks to the great recovery methods used at the HeG excavations, we are able to find even the smallest of sealing fragments and use them to gather information. (Photo by Ali Witsell)

This month we have finally registered the 5000th sealing excavated at Giza from over 20 years of intensive excavation. This number is staggering especially when one considers that the entire site of Elephantine near Aswan in southern Egypt generated about 1000 sealings for the same time period.

Also, once we started focusing our attention on the sealings that came from in and around the enigmatic Pedestal Building in Area AA, Ali started to notice that many of the sealings were taken from twine or cordage that had been tightly coiled around a central peg. These peg-and-string sealing are typically used on doors (if they are big enough) or sometimes granaries. Ali has been working on tracking down examples from Middle Kingdom granaries that seem to confirm this pattern.

We have also been reconstructing entire seal designs from the many shattered sealing fragments from the Pedestal Building. This is painstaking work, but the seal designs tell us the titles held by the officials who were involved with the Pedestal Building and the surrounding structures. Not only have we identified 14 different officials from the royal administration, we have also started to reassemble the seals of less exalted workers who used their own seals when working in the Pedestal Building.

John Nolan working on collating the titles and serekhs on a seal reconstruction for final publication. (Photo by Ali Witsell)

As we near the end of our brief stay in the Giza Lab, Ali and John feel as if their journey into the workings of the staff of the Pedestal Building is just beginning. There is still much research in the library to do, as well as preparing the illustrations and drawings needed for final publication.