Ancient Egypt Research Associates

*This is the third installment of a series by AERA Sealings Team Member and Managing Editor Ali Witsell. Read part one, part two and John Nolan’s introductory sealings blog from the beginning of the season, for a refresher course on sealing terminology.

So to recap a bit, broadly, John and I see all the seal types at Giza (and the Old Kingdom Egyptian glyptic corpus as a whole) as holding positions on this continuum between our formal and informal categories. That’s all fine and well art historically, but if we project our seals out into society and try to assign person to thing, what does this difference mean? If the Official seals represent scribes, priests, and all things royally administered, who or even what in ancient Egyptian society and economy do the informals represent?

Although it would be convenient for the Giza glyptic material to fall into two simple categories of “formal” and “informal,” with a corresponding continuum of “royal” and “individual,” the reality of the situation is probably as complicated and nuanced as the various contributing components of the larger Old Kingdom economy. There is a high likelihood that all sorts of sealed goods were shipped in from the countryside surrounding the plateau, all intended to help fuel Giza’s vast pyramid-building machine and the upkeep of the staff in the temples of the deceased pharaohs.

All of those goods – potentially representing all sorts of individuals and estates or institutions — were opened and consumed, their sealings broken off and discarded in trash heaps all over the site. We have to remember that there is a chance that a portion of the players behind the informals did not live and work on site, as we know from John’s research that the Official seal owners often did. We have fewer informal examples, with more variety amongst them. And to make matters even more complicated, besides the social distance the informal seal owners likely had from the royal sphere, there is a good chance that their actual physical distance from Giza manifested itself in the iconography and carving of their seals as well – something akin to an old-fashioned game of Telephone, but with variation after variation as a particular motif rippled its way out into the countryside, town by town, carver by carver, copy by copy. All of these factors, at least in my mind, make the informals much harder to classify.

So how to make a start at figuring out who these players are? To make it meaningful, we need to go back to sound archaeological context. What we needed was an excavation of one specific area of site that had both formal and informal sealings together, in large enough quantities that we could say they were a real presence, possibly even working together, side by side. What do the back impressions tell us? Can we say which person was responsible for sealing documents, which was responsible for closing the door and sealing it up tight at the end of the day? Can we say the “who or what” behind the informals were actually there and present on site, sealing doors or architectural peg-and-string closures that couldn’t logically be transported or shipped in?

It had to be a real, “just right” Goldilocks-type of excavation. Where to find that?

Enough pieces of the puzzle
So let me back up for a second and say that the importance of the Giza glyptic corpus is not only measured by the sheer quantity or subject matter of the material, but also its uniqueness. I am not an Egyptologist or a philologist. Although I’ve by now picked up enough hieroglyphs to make myself useful to John, I never had any proper Egyptian language courses – but that doesn’t stop me from reading the clay. My focus in classwork was Mesopotamian archaeology and before I joined AERA I worked on 4th and 3rd millennium sealings from Syria and Iraq (and before archaeology I was a fine arts student working in clay – no experience ever wasted, as my Mom says).

In Mesopotamian archaeology, the chronological development of cylinder seals has been firmly understood for a good while. The “grammars” of the various styles and types of their cylinder seals are so well developed that even those examples without king’s names are still recognized as strong chronological indicators. It’s not quite that solidified here in Egypt yet. However, even though cylinder and stamp seal technology developed outside of Egypt, there are very few sites with active seal technologies anywhere that have provided an area of excavation so large and well controlled as that here at Giza. The wide horizontal spread, thin depth of deposits, high level of recovery, lengthy period of excavation, and short timespan represented across the ancient remains of the HeG site (largely two kings alone – Khafre and Menkaure) make it an ideal and rather unique glyptic laboratory. Ideas regarding how people moved through the site, which areas were controlled by certain people or offices, the day-to-day responsibilities of which office – all of these could potentially be tested and explored. There are enough puzzle pieces that you can really do something here.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s get back to Goldilocks.

So I had gotten really quite jealous. Sitting there, lab season after lab season, while John pieced together all these fabulous full theoretical seal reconstructions amongst the Official seals. He wrote his dissertation in 2010 on sealings from an area at HeG called Western Town, or more specifically, a giant trash heap. In that heap, known as Pottery Mound, he found enough sealings to gain a good bit of insight into a group of 12 or so scribes from Khafre and Menkaure’s time and help us really understand the “formality” of the formal sealings. And those scribes had been exceedingly busy – writing and sealing documents, opening and discarding document sealings, packing and sealing boxes, opening and discarding box sealings. He had lots of pieces to his puzzles. But me? Still not so much.

Then our informal Goldilocks found her very own “just right” trash pile.

A needle in a haystack. The Heit el-Ghurab site. Wherefore art thou, perfect informal trash heap???