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Cryptic Numerals on Cubit Rods

Cryptic Numerals on Cubit Rods

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Published by khafre
A comparison of a text found on the back of certain votive cubit rods with the hieroglyphs used as numerals in Ptolemaic inscriptions reveals that the cryptic notation of numbers was already in use at the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period.
A comparison of a text found on the back of certain votive cubit rods with the hieroglyphs used as numerals in Ptolemaic inscriptions reveals that the cryptic notation of numbers was already in use at the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period.

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Published by: khafre on Oct 23, 2010
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Originally published in
GM 
192 (2003), 61−66.
Cryptic numerals on cubit rods
Gyula Priskin
A comparison of a text found on the back of certain votive cubit rods with the hieroglyphsused as numerals in Ptolemaic inscriptions reveals that the cryptic notation of numbers wasalready in use at the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period.
Introduction
On one type of cubit rods that have come down to us from ancient Egypt we findnumerous inscriptions. These artefacts, the earliest examples of which are dated to the New Kingdom, are called votive cubit rods, and are thought to have belonged totemple inventories as some sort of ceremonial objects.
1
That these rods were not usedin actual measurement is strongly suggested in the first place by the fact that they areall made of stone, while the functional rods, as far as we can judge from survivingspecimens, were without exception fashioned from wood.
2
 The nature of the inscriptions also makes us think that the votive rods had symbolic,rather than practical significance. A text inscribed on the top side, for example, tells usthat what is written on these rods belongs to the magical lore of Thoth. Indeed, theother texts record the physical extentions of Egypt, the height of the flooding Nile atdifferent locations, the variations of the land measure according to the nomes, andother similar information. Pierre Lacau and Henri Chevrier were the first to point outthat many of these texts are of the same vein as those found in the White Chapel of Sesostris I (ca. 2000 BC),
3
and are somehow connected to the jubilee of the king’sreign, the
Hb-sd 
festival.While the majority of the inscriptions on the votive cubit rods have been clarifiedand translated by Adelheid Schlott-Schwab,
4
some texts pose sizeable difficulties of interpretation and are still to be properly understood. Here I attempt to shed some lighton a piece of text that has so far eluded explanation completely.
The text
On the back of the cubit rods of Sheshonk I (ca. 950 BC) and Nectanebos II (ca. 350BC) is preserved an enigmatic text, occupying four fingers (from the 16th to the 19th)and belonging to
Text j
in Schlott-Schwab’s categorization (see Fig. 1). A fragmentdisplaying about one and a half fingers from the same text is also found on the rod thatis registered in the Cairo catalogue by the number 
 @     
 
. .
5
Since, however, the rods of 
1
The most extensive study of votive cubit rods is found in A. Schlott-Schwab,
 Die Ausmasse Ägyptens nachaltägyptischen Texten
(Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1981). See also S. Gabra,
MDAIK 
24 (1969), 129-135; A.Schwab-Schlott,
MDAIK 
28 (1972), 109-113; A-P. Zivie,
 RdÉ 
29 (1977), 215-223 and
 BIFAO
71 (1972), 181-188.
2
For these rods, see R. Lepsius,
 Die alt-aegyptische Elle und ihre Entheilung 
(Berlin, 1865), reprinted with anEnglish translation by J. Degreef as
The Ancient Egyptian Cubit and Its Subdivision
(Museum Bookshop,London, 2001; edited by M. St. John), and M. St. John,
Three Cubits Compared 
(Estoi, 2000).
3
P. Lacau & H. Chevrier,
Une chapelle de Sésostris I 
er 
à Karnak 
(Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale,Cairo, 1956), pp. 217-248.
4
Schlott-Schwab,
 Ausmasse
, pp. 30-65.
5
Schwab-Schlott,
MDAIK 
28, Tafel XXVI.
 
Originally published in
GM 
192 (2003), 61−66.
Figure 1
Fragments of votive rods of Sheshonk I (above) and Nectanebos II (below)displaying
Text j1
[= Tafeln XIV and XIX in Schlott-Schwab
 Ausmasse
]. On Sheshonk I’s rodthe inscriptions run uniquely from right to left.
Sheshonk I and Nectanebos II are also fragmentary, we do not know if the four fingersunder examination present the whole body of the text (I propose to call it
Text j1
), or itcontinues on the lost parts of the cubits. The fragmented signs in the 20th finger on Nectanebos II’s rod may be interpreted to suggest that the text does not terminate inthe 19th finger but runs further, or alternatively, begins earlier on the right. To decidethe direction of writing, the face of the hieroglyphs is not authoritative here, I think, because they may be deliberately reversed.The structure of the text is very simple: it is divided into nine groups – eachconsisting of three hieroglyphs – that are distributed in a 2–2–3–2 pattern as regardsthe fingers. The first two glyphs in each group are the same, , while the third oneis different each time. For we may tentatively offer a phonetic value
wnmD 
,especially on the basis of the hieroglyphic group in the 19th finger, which mayform the first lexical unit of the text. The meaning of 
wnmD 
remains obscure, but theremay be a parallel between this phrase and the equally puzzling expression
wnhr 
that appears in
Text a
on the top side of the cubit rods,
6
in the context ‘the power (mastery?) of the
wnhr 
of the magic spells of Thoth’.As for the nine hieroglyphs constituting the third, varying element within eachgroup, they almost certainly denote numbers, because for six of them we find exact
6
Schlott-Schwab,
 Ausmasse
, p. 40.
 
Originally published in
GM 
192 (2003), 61−66.
matches in Ptolemaic texts at Dendera, Edfu, Esna and Kom Ombo used as crypticnumerals (see Table 1), while for the remaining three more or less plausibleexplanations can be presented why they signified numbers. In the light of this, it is allthe more likely that the second hieroglyph should not be read phonetically at all, buthas the numerical value 10; at present, however, no definite solution can be putforward on this point. If does read 10, then we have a list of numbers from 11 to 19.The traces ( and )
 
in the 20th finger on Nectanebos’ rod seem to support thisinterpretation, because they may be the remnants of and , and thus should perhaps read
wn
9 and
wn
10, the numbers preceding 11 in the list. Still, the meaningof 
wn
remains unclear.Cubit rods Ptolemaic temples Numeral – 
 
12345, – (6) – (7)8,9
Table 1
Exact matches between signs in
Text j1
on votive cubit rods and hieroglyphs usedas numbers in Ptolemaic texts. The numerals in parentheses are uncertain.
7
 
Possible origins of the numerical values of the signs
I will in this section offer explanations for the numerical values of all the signs inTable 1, plus one more not featured in
Text j1
, but probably also having something todo in its origins with the cubit rods. Also, I will try to highlight points of connection between the signs for which no exact matches are found in Ptolemaic texts and thesigns used with the same numerical value at that later time. While I believe that theexplanations below – be they my own or put forward by others – are reasonable, and incertain cases very obvious, they also sometimes tend to be much speculative, so theEgyptian priests may have had entirely different ideas in mind when they selected a particular hieroglyph to be used in the cryptic writing of numbers.
7
For the numerals 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8 in Ptolemaic inscriptions see C. De Wit,
CdÉ 
74, (1962), 272-290 and S.Cauville,
 BIFAO
90 (1990), 83-114. For 9, A. Gutbub,
 Kôm Ombo
vol. 1 (Institut Français d’ArchéologieOrientale, Cairo, 1995) pp. 407-422.

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