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Archaeologists Have Discovered An Ancient Egyptian “Billboard”

The “massive” hieroglyphics shed new light on how the writing system was used.

Archaeologists Have Discovered An Ancient Egyptian “Billboard”
[Source Photos: Alberto Urcia/Elkab Desert Survey Project, trekandshoot/iStock]

Even the ancient world had billboards–or something a lot like them. That’s what a group of archaeologists from Yale University and the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels recently discovered while exploring the archeological remains of the ancient Egyptian city of Elkab. There, they uncovered a series of large hieroglyphics that are an estimated 5,200 years old.

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The hieroglyphics are each about a foot and a half tall–they’re “massive” compared to other previously discovered symbols that were typically about an inch tall. “In the modern world this would be akin to seeing smaller text on your computer screen and then suddenly seeing very large ones made the same way only on a billboard,” says John Coleman Darnell, an Egyptologist and professor at Yale who co-directs the Elkab Desert Survey Project, in a Yale News story.

[Photo: Alberto Urcia/Elkab Desert Survey Project]
The hieroglyphics themselves depict a bull’s head on a pole, two saddlebill storks, and two bald ibis birds. The researchers believe that the symbols refer to the solar cycle and may express the royal family’s dominion over the world. These hieroglyphics may have acted like giant signs declaring the power of the ruling family to travelers and passersby–a statement that has now lasted over five millennia.

[Photo: Alberto Urcia/Elkab Desert Survey Project]
The Elkab area where the monumental hieroglyphics were found was once a very important locale in ancient Egypt. But the significance of the discovery is also that the symbols show how writing wasn’t just created for record-keeping. It was also used in other ways, and in a larger diversity of places, around 3200 BC–the same time period that the hieroglyphic writing system was invented.

The archaeologists found the symbols by looking for ancient road systems–often, they write, inscriptions are found along thoroughfares and at junctions. That sounds just like a modern-day city, where billboards are often oriented toward areas highly trafficked by walkers or drivers. It’s a fascinating parallel between today’s modern landscape and its ancient precedents. The question remains: Will our society’s billboards last as long?

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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