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_Patrao_ t1_iwbduv1 wrote

Unfortunaly it is a cross cultural, ignores geographical boundaries and goes back in time as long as we are able to record it. The same goes for the symbolism of the branding. However I got to say that reading the article, it is an assumption by the scholars that this is the case. As far as I can reach, they reckon the branding irons were too small for cattle, thus used on humans. It is a bit of a stretch though I can understand the conclusion, but I believe we are still missing a couple of steps to assert that is the case definitely.


2dTom t1_iwbjy5o wrote

There are a lot of domesticated animals smaller than cattle that the brands could have been used on.

Off the top of my head, Egyptian society used sheep, goats, and donkeys.

As you stated, the evidence is tenuous at best.

Edit: I re-read the article and the author discusses the idea of branding goats or donkeys, but doesn't actually address it, merely stating 'other options must be explored'. Which is fine, but the rest of the article only examines why they could be used for branding people, not why it is more likely than the usage of these brands for smaller livestock.


maluminse t1_iwcanr6 wrote

Article is speculative imo. Its wholly based on the size of the brand. Because its possible doesnt make it likely. Sensational conclusion based on such evidence.


_Patrao_ t1_iwbnihr wrote

Exactly. It is an option which I can entertain as a possibility no doubt, but I don't think it is reasonable to take it as a certainty as it was not demonstrated, just hypothesised. Once again it's not that I doubt it, I find it possible or maybe probable given that it is, and unfortunately, a human universal, but the evidence is just not there. At least yet.


eeeking t1_iwcton5 wrote

Branding is also sometimes used decoratively....


claudecardinal t1_iwbjc5p wrote

>Pharaoh prohibited the Jewish slaves from returning to their homes

Is there any evidence of Jews in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs? I have never seen any credible source with artifacts or documents, yet always people repeat the story as if it is common knowledge.


kromem t1_iwby3dm wrote

No, the case for Israelites in Egypt is very weak.

You have the early Exodus theory around the Hyskos, who were a Semetic people in Egypt and expelled ~1530 BCE, but they are centuries before the earliest emergence of the Israelites as a distinct group (~12th century BCE).

Then you have the late Exodus theory around the Ramesside period (12th to 11th century BCE), and while Merneptah mentions Israel, it's not mentioned in terms of captives and there's no evidence of an Exodus or even large population from the Israelite sites.

But there's hope yet for clarity on this story, as there have been some interesting discoveries in the Early Iron Age archeology in the Southern Levant, specifically with the cohabitation of the Philistines and Israelites in Gath, the imported Anatolian bees in the apiary in Tel Rehov, and the Aegean style pottery made with local clay in Tel Dan.

This is interesting because while the Biblical account of the Exodus was ethnocentric, the Greek and Egyptian accounts described a multitude of different people including pre-Greeks.

It may be that the story of the Exodus related to the Aegean and Anatolian sea peoples, particularly their battles against Egypt alongside Lybia against Merneptah (the main subject of the Israel Stele) and thereafter, later appropriated by the Israelites after their forced relocation into Israelite areas by Ramses III.

For more, see this comment thread in /r/AcademicBiblical.


Bentresh t1_iwcagq2 wrote

Adding my $0.02 as an Egyptologist who specializes in Egypt-Near Eastern interactions.

>No, the case for Israelites in Egypt is very weak.

We should be careful not to conflate “Israelite” with “Jewish,” though, and they asked about Jewish people in Egypt. The more relevant answer is that Judaism did not evolve out of Canaanite polytheism until the Iron Age, several centuries after the purported time of the Exodus. Not only are Jews not attested in New Kingdom Egypt, they are not attested anywhere in the Late Bronze Age. Even the papyri of the community of the Jewish temple at Elephantine, which date to the mid-1st millennium BCE, are in many ways strikingly at odds with, and show a general ignorance of, the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and suggest that accounts like the Exodus story had not yet been formalized.

Certainly “Israelites” — by which I mean people from the southern Levant in the region that would later become Israel — are quite well attested in Egypt throughout the Late Bronze Age. Of course, Egyptologists do not refer to these people as Israelites but rather Canaanites or Asiatics, partially because their precise geographic origins are often uncertain and partly becase the term Israel is not attested until the reign of Merneptah, as you noted.

Many Canaanites in Egypt were prisoners of war, brought back to Egypt in the thousands. The royal household in particular was full of servants of foreign extraction, and high-ranking nobles often had foreign servants as well. In a letter to his viceroy of Kush User-setet, for example, the 18th Dynasty king Amenhotep II mentions Near Eastern women in User-setet's household.

>You have taken up residence [in Nubia], a brave one who plunders in all foreign countries and a chariot-warrior who fought for His Majesty, Amenhotep II, who takes tribute from Naharin and decided the fate of the land of Ḫatti, the lord of a woman from Babylon, a maidservant from Byblos, a young maiden from Alalakh, and an old woman from Arapḫa...

Others were members of the elite. It was a standard practice from the reign of Thutmose III onward to raise the children of subject rulers in the Egyptian court as hostages before installing them on their fathers' thrones. This not only forged a bond between the Egyptian and Canaanite princes in the royal nursery (Egyptian kAp) but also instilled Egyptian values in the young Canaanite princes and princesses. This practice was later adopted by the Assyrians, and one sees similar hostages raised in the Neo-Assyrian court (e.g. the Arabian princess Tabua and the Babylonian noble Bel-ibni).

Immigrants in search of greener pastures and political refugees also traveled to Egypt. The most famous example of the latter is not a Canaanite but rather a Hittite, the deposed king Muršili III, who fled to Egypt after his uncle seized the throne in a coup.

Of course, the reverse is also true, and Egyptians often moved or traveled abroad. For example, a man with the Egyptian name of Amenmose (attested in cuneiform as Amanmašu) seems to have worked in the royal court of Ugarit and possibly also Carchemish and owned a cuneiform and Anatolian hieroglyphic seal. I provided more examples in one of my past r/askhistorians posts, Are there any records from pre-Achaemenid Egypt of ethnic Egyptians living and working outside of Egypt for foreign peoples?

>It may be that the story of the Exodus related to the Aegean and Anatolian sea peoples, particularly their battles against Egypt alongside Lybia against Merneptah (the main subject of the Israel Stele) and thereafter, later appropriated by the Israelites after their forced relocation into Israelite areas by Ramses III.

It should be noted that there is nothing even approaching a consensus when it comes to the Exodus account, and this is your own theory in particular.

There are many other interpretations of the Exodus story. One theory, championed by Richard Friedman, is that only a very small subset of the Israelites originated in Egypt (more specifically, the Levites). Others believe it is a garbled memory of the formation of Israel set against the context of the political vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of Egyptian forces from the southern Levant. (I personally find this the most likely.) Still others, such as Jan Assmann, trace the origins of the story not to a specific historical incident but rather mnemohistory, a collective memory through which the Israelites forged a common identity based on past events (regardless of the (un)reliability of the historical narratives).


CharonsLittleHelper t1_iwcbd0e wrote

To be fair though - ancient Egypt is known for expunging their histories of things that made them look bad.

So a lack of historical records itself isn't super surprising.

This isn't evidence that it DID happen either though.


Bentresh t1_iwcirc1 wrote

Egyptian kings certainly portrayed themselves positively to an unrealistic degree in their monumental inscriptions on temples, obelisks, rock-cut monuments, etc., but it should be noted there are a number of unflattering incidents mentioned in Egyptian literature and archival texts. I listed some examples in this r/academicbiblical thread.


funpen t1_iwc8cdr wrote

Nope. Im jewish and was surprised when I found out. Jews were never enslaved by the Egyptians as far as science, our current understanding of history, And archeology is concerned. We most certainly did not build the pyramids. I more of a science and logic kind of guy some I am going to side with historians and archeologists and not some silly old book with fairytales. Although, who knows; maybe in the future we will uncover some historically important artifact that will change our understand of our past.


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MeatballDom t1_iwbbfsc wrote

It does not seem like the article this story is based on is open access, but this is a potentially sensitive topic so it is important to provide that as well. Sorry, no pictures or tables, but they are on the article itself. And this is quick copy and paste, so sorry for the formatting but it's the best I can do unless someone has an open source. Therefore:

Ella Karev. "'Mark them with my Mark’: Human Branding in Egypt". The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (2022).

Abstract This paper analyzes the Aramaic and Egyptian textual evidence for the practice of marking enslaved persons in Late Period Egypt, concluding that the terminology of the period refers to branding, not tattooing, as previously suggested. Both branding and tattooing existed as forms of body mutilation, but these practices inhabited different spheres of social power; branding marked one as property, whereas tattooing was religious and decorative. Bearing in mind the use of branding as an indication of ownership, the evidence of tattooing as a cultic (and particularly feminine) practice, and the etymology and usage of the Aramaic terms, this paper proposes that the body mutilation practiced in this period on enslaved persons was branding, not tattooing. The identification of these marks as brands emphasizes the dehumanization of these enslaved persons and implies that their status was on par with other property such as cattle.

In Aramaic texts of the Late Period, certain bodies of enslaved persons are said to be ‘marked’. The words used for the action of marking—and which can both be defined as ‘mark’—are sṭr and šnt, used individually (šnt bšnt’, or sṭr as an adjective) or in a pair (sṭr bšnt’). In translation, scholars have usually opted for ‘brand’ or ‘tattoo’1 (or, in one case, the non-specific ‘mark’).2 This generalization suggests that brands and tattoos are interchangeable as punitive body modification; however, they are not. Indeed, the practices inhabit different arenas of social power in the ancient Near East, but especially so in Egypt. On the basis of textual, physical, and artistic evidence, I argue that the marks on Egyptian enslaved persons were indeed brands, rather than tattoos. This serves the dual purpose of clarifying the terminology and artefacts of slavery in Egypt—especially of the Late Period—as well as providing context for the social status of enslaved persons, i.e., that they inhabited the same arena as branded cattle. Branding and tattooing are both evidenced in the ancient Mediterranean world, with the latter often taking on aspects of decoration and punishment depending on the time period and geographic location. In Egypt, tattoos were decorative and almost exclusively on female bodies. In contrast, brands were intended only for indication of ownership. Texts evidencing the sale and transfer of cattle single out those that have a mark versus those that do not,3 and artistic depictions portray an image familiar to modern cattle-herders: a restrained animal, a brazier, and a long-handled brand.4 Several of these brands have been uncovered in archaeological contexts,5 some far too small for cattle.6 These brands were very likely used on owned humans, rather than cattle, with the same intent: reduction to property. In the Aramaic textual evidence, the ‘marks’ serve the same goal: in three instances, the mark was of the owner’s name (šmy/šmh).7 In two other texts, we are afforded some more detail: the mark included l- (‘belonging to’) and the owner’s name.8 Bearing in mind the use of branding as an indication of ownership, the evidence of tattooing as a female and cultic practice, and the etymology and usage of these Aramaic terms, this paper will propose that the body mutilation practiced in Egypt, and therefore a more accurate translation of the Aramaic terminology, is ‘brand’ rather than ‘tattoo’. The implications of this practice, in turn, sheds some light on the status of enslaved persons in Egypt.9

Physical and artistic evidence of tattooing and branding To clarify the confused concepts of tattooing and branding, it is first important to discuss the evidence of tattooing as a separate cultic practice. The presupposition that tattooing in the ancient world was present mostly in carceral and/or penal contexts10 likely originates from the study of classical societies, since the Greeks and Romans employed tattooing almost exclusively for punitive purposes.11 Criminals and runaway slaves of the Graeco-Roman world were regularly tattooed.12 This is not to say that the Greeks were entirely unfamiliar with the concept of religious (or, at least, non-penal) tattooing; they had come across the practice of religious tattoos in Thrace and Syria, but considered it a barbaric practice.13 The classical idea of penal tattooing stands in contrast to the use of tattooing in Egypt, which appears to have been religious in nature. Interest in Egyptian tattooing has recently undergone a resurgence, in light of the tattooed mummy discovered at Deir el-Medina in 2014. Following this discovery, Anne Austin and Cédric Gobeil published ground-breaking work on the topic, cataloguing the tattoos on the mummy with high-quality images.14 The earliest forays into Egyptian tattoo research were conducted by Keimer in 1948,15 who documented tattooing in Egypt by combining evidence from figurines, mummies, and ethnography of modern Egypt and Nubia. Several other scholars have since addressed tattooing in Egypt,16 but—as Austin astutely points out—without new physical evidence, innovative research was limited.17 Textual evidence for tattooing is non-existent. There is some artistic evidence for the practice of tattooing in the Predynastic Period, but there is limited parallel physical evidence from the period.18 Artisic evidence comes in the form of painted patterns upon sculpted figurines; but this painting could equally be representative of clothing, jewellery, tattoos, or indeed even simple decoration. In contrast, in the Middle Kingdom, evidence for tattooing surfaces in both artistic depictions and on human remains. A total of three female mummies were discovered in a Twelfth Dynasty tomb south of the temple at Deir el-Bahri, all decorated with geometrically patterned tattoos similar to the marks on paddle dolls.19 The most well-known of these mummies was buried in a coffin and named the priestess of Hathor, Amunet.20 The other two mummies with similar markings from Deir el-Bahri were uncovered during the Metropolitan Museum’s excavation.21 The geometric tattoos found on these women are likely Nubian in origin,22 as similar tattooed mummies are evidenced in Nubian C-Group cemeteries at Kubban,23 Aksha,24 and Hierakonpolis.25 Alongside these geometric tattoos, artistic depictions suggest that figural tattoos based on Egyptian iconography developed around the same time, most commonly, tattoos of Bes on the thighs of women.26 Another tattooed female mummy of the same period was discovered in a tomb at Asasif with a tattoo of two birds between her right shoulder and elbow.27 Bianchi,28 Morris,29 and most recently Austin and Gobeil30 have linked the practice of tattooing to the cult of Hathor, largely due to the similarity of the marks on the tattooed women to those on paddle dolls and on artistic depictions of women. Until Austin and Gobeil’s publication of the tattooed mummy from Deir el-Medina, research was limited by the lack of physical evidence; after this discovery, ‘this evidence demonstrates an undeniable connection between Hathor worship and tattooing’.31 Most notably, in all of the above instances, the tattooed figures were—almost without exception—female and cultic. The vast majority of the evidence, therefore, suggests not only that tattooing was a female form of body modification but that it was also largely limited to ritual and cultic contexts, whether as part of the Hathor cult or, as Tassie suggests, more general concerns about fertility and sex.32 In either case, there does not seem to be evidence of penal tattooing in Egypt.33 Alternatively, however, one must consider the complete lack of physical evidence of branding on humans. To date, no clearly branded human body has ever been identified from ancient Egypt. Palaeodermatological research,34 along with the aforementioned research into tattoos,35 has proven that subcutaneous marks such as tattoos, scars, or brands can be preserved, but only if the rest of the body has been preserved naturally through favourable environmental conditions or artificially through mummification or embalming—i.e. there is no mark left on skeletal evidence. The tattooed, mummified women of Deir el-Medina and Deir el-Bahri held high statuses in society as priestesses or wise women. In contrast, the individuals most likely to be branded are low in status: prisoners of war and slaves. Therefore, it is unlikely that this type of individual would have warranted the expense and effort of mummification. Even if the remains of prisoners of war, enslaved persons, or marked labourers are unearthed and examined,36 their osteological remains would not evidence branding.

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MeatballDom t1_iwbc48n wrote

The tools of the trade Beyond the human physical evidence, both tattooing and branding are practices which require the use of specific implements. In the case of tattooing, identifying these tools has been fraught: anthropological research indicates that tattoos can be incised with nearly any pointy implement.37 Before the advent of the modern tattoo machine in the late nineteenth century, most tattoos were embedded in the skin through the ‘puncture method’: any sharp implement is used to break the skin, with pigment either applied to the tip of the sharp implement or inserted after the skin has been broken. This appears to be the method employed in Egypt,38 but the evidence for tattooing tools from Egypt are questionable at best. Several sharp tools have been variously identified as tattoo needles in scholarship, though only one tool fits Deter-Wolf’s ‘toolkit’ theory, i.e. that a tattoo needle can only be conclusively identified if it is part of a toolkit including other objects.39 The other objects potentially included in such a toolkit could include: pigments and ingredients to prepare tattoo ink, a mortar and pestle (or similar item) to grind the pigment and mix the ink, an ointment or oil to prepare the skin or to promote healing, tools with which to draw the design on the skin before incision, and perhaps ritualistic objects like incense or amulets.40 In 2003, Tassie attempted to outline criteria for the positive identification of tattoo needles in the archaeological record, stating that a find should meet at least one of the following: contain traces of blood or pigment, be attached to additional needles to create a ‘bundle’, and be found with female-oriented items.41 In theory, this is a logical framework. However, there are a number of issues: first, many of the possible tattoo needles are housed in museums and not discovered in situ, meaning that they would certainly have been cleaned; second, a ‘bundle’, if it indeed was used as Tassie suggests, would have likely been held together by organic materials now long gone;42 third and finally, though women are usually tattooed, there is no evidence that they were the ones doing the tattooing.43 A decade after Tassie’s article, Deter-Wolf updated the criteria by adding that it is also possible to identify tattoo needles through use-wear analysis to determine whether the implement’s wear pattern is similar to that of a known tattoo needle.44 However, this analysis would apply to organic tools only (e.g., sharpened bone awls) and not the metal implements found in Egypt and identified as tattooing needles. Thus far, three sharp implements have been identified as tattooing needles, all metal. The first are a set of seven bronze points, collectively UC 7790, three of which are tied together, excavated by Petrie in Gurob in 1880.45 Petrie originally described these needles as prick points for thorn removal, on the basis of their similarity to Graeco-Roman tools used for that purpose,46 but a later assessment suggested that these tools were not fine enough for thorn removal and instead should be classified as tattoo needles.47 Further examination—and some experimental archaeology involving actual tattooing—proved that although these needles can create a tattoo, the process is painstaking and unusual, since indigenous tattooing overwhelmingly used organic materials for tattooing, not metal.48 The second potential set of tattoo needles, also uncovered by Petrie,49 is a microlith set in a wooden handle dating to the First Dynasty. Bianchi dismissed this idea without too much explanation,50 though Tassie seems to think that it could have been used for tattooing. Either way, the evidence was inconclusive. No blood or pigment remained on the microlith to allow for testing. Finally, the most recent discovery of possible tattoo needles is a set of five metal awls, one eyed and one notched;51 it is most likely that these were actually a sewing kit, with the notched awl used for making netting.52 In all of these cases, the sharp implements are only tentatively identified as tattoo needles. Certainly, the tattooed mummified women mentioned earlier in this article were tattooed by a specialized set of instruments. However, the lack of positively identified tattoo needles warrants some consideration in a discussion of the practice. The identification of branding-irons is far easier, since they are predictable in their shape and can only be used for one purpose (in contrast with needles or any sharp implement). I have identified eight branding-irons, six from the Petrie Museum Collection and two from the British Museum. These irons have been correctly labelled as ‘branding-irons’ in museum collections, and the general assumption is that they are intended for use on cattle. However, their size indicates that they were most likely for another purpose: branding human beings. It is perhaps unsurprising that cattle were branded as a mark of ownership, and the unquestionable depiction of cattle branding in the tomb of Nebamun (fig. 1)53 has attracted little remark. In this scene, one attendant heats a square branding-iron upon a brazier on the floor while two attendants actively brand two trussed cattle on the right shoulder with identical branding-irons

Although the branding-irons in that scene are square, brands were varied in shape, representing a deity, place-name, or perhaps an owner. In the fragmentary P. Varzy,54 a description of cattle branding replicates the brand in large-scale:55 a rwḏ sign (T12) surrounding a ỉwn-column (O28), meant to represent ‘long may Heliopolis endure!’.56 Cattle sale documents of the Saite and Persian Periods record at least six distinct brands in nine different instances. Occasionally, the shape of the brand and its meaning are both included (e.g., nt ỉȝb n pȝ tḫn pȝ ỉȝb n ỉmn ‘who is branded with the obelisk, the brand of Amun’57), but more frequently either the shape alone is referenced (nt ỉȝb n pȝ bk ‘who is branded with the falcon’58) or the deity (nt ỉȝb n pȝ ỉȝb ỉst ‘who is branded with the brand of Isis’59). The shapes described in these documents are in line with the branding-irons currently housed in museum collections (table 1), which are in the form of animal representations of deities, or, in one instance, a cartouche. The majority of these branding-irons are from the Egyptian collection at University College London and were published by Petrie himself in 1917; he dated the collection of irons to the Nineteenth through the Twenty-Fifth Dynasties.60

Modern guidelines stipulate that a standard branding-iron for cattle branding should have characters at a minimum height of 10.6 cm, or else risk losing legibility once the calf ages.66 These brands (with the exception of UC 63717 and BM. EA 57321) are far too small for that purpose, averaging around 2 x 4 cm in height. There are three possibilities for this discrepancy: first, that these were intended for smaller animals such as goats, donkeys, or horses; second, that these were model tools replicated in miniature; or third, that their intended use was for human branding. Although horses are known to have been branded in the Graeco-Roman world,67 we have no evidence that this was the case in Egypt, nor is there any evidence of branding goats.68 However, there is some evidence that donkeys were branded.69 The absence of evidence of horse branding need not necessarily indicate that the practice did not exist, since donkeys were indeed branded. Nevertheless, the other options should also be explored. While model tools are a known practice, the corpus is surprisingly small70 and can be divided into the following categories: building tools, toilet implements (e.g. mirrors and razors), weaving tools, leatherworking tools, hunting tools (generally fish-hooks), and weapons (axes, arrowheads, daggers).71 In the Old Kingdom, these model tool hoards were part of a burial assemblage, but by the Middle Kingdom the practice was mostly limited to building tools as part of a foundation deposit.72 If this collection was indeed model branding-irons from the Late Period, it would be very unusual. No model brands (including the ones above) have been found in model tool assemblages, and none of the above tools come from a mortuary context. In light of the above conclusions, I suggest that these branding-irons were not intended for cattle, but rather for the practice of branding human beings as chattel. Further supporting this point is evidence from the more recent instance of human branding during the Transatlantic slave trade. Human branding-irons from the mid- and late-nineteenth century parallel the size and shape of the smaller branding-irons discussed here: a height of approximately 1 x 1 inches (2.54 x 2.54 cm) and a length of approximately 7 inches (17.78 cm).73 It is, however, still possible that the larger of these branding-irons (namely BM EA 57321, UC 63717, and ECM.1771-2010) were intended for use on horses or donkeys.

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MeatballDom t1_iwbc72g wrote

The Medinet Habu inscription As the only artistic depiction of human branding—or perhaps tattooing, as some contend—the inscription at Medinet Habu of the registration of prisoners74 (fig. 2) has attracted some attention.

In this scene, four officials on the left (only one is visible here) are oriented to the right, writing on papyrus rolls. Two officials in shorter kilts each restrain a prisoner by their right hand and stamp them upon the right shoulder. On the ground between the officials and the prisoners is a small brazier with straight lines coming out of it. Some scholars have suggested that this scene represents tattooing, not branding,75 others suggested branding,76 and yet others left the matter equivocal.77 Arguing against branding, authors have stated that the tools do not resemble artistic depictions of branding-irons,78 that the tools themselves are too heavy to have been held as they are,79 and that the object on the ground is a bowl of pigment rather than a brazier.80 The original artists of the line-drawing may have been overzealous in their reconstruction, adding details in the drawing that are simply not evident in the relief. It is true that in the line-drawing, the Medinet Habu tools do not resemble the tools in the cattle-branding scenes of the Theban tombs; the inscription seems to depict the officials writing with a stylus-like tool. The photograph of the inscription, taken at the same time (fig. 3), shows the true state of preservation; notably, that the tool itself and the hands of the officials are not preserved.

In the photograph, the hands of the officials and the tools they are holding are hardly visible. It is entirely possible that, rather than a stylus-like tool, the officials here are holding tools more reminiscent of those depicted in the Theban tomb scenes of cattle-branding. The state of preservation also addresses the second point—namely, that the tools are too heavy to be held as they are—since the hands of the officials are barely preserved. Even if the officials are holding their tools more like a stylus, it is important to recall the size of the human branding-irons81 discussed above: about the length of a pencil, and likely not too difficult to hold like a stylus.82 The object between the officials and the prisoners should be labelled as a brazier not only because of its context in what is very likely branding, but also due to its size. If the scene depicted was that of permanent or impermanent marking, the ink would probably be mixed in the same way that traditional scribal and painting ink was mixed: dried ink cakes would be hydrated as needed to produce small amounts of ink for the brush or pen.83 It would be extraordinarily expensive and wasteful to produce giant tubs of pigment, an idea implied by the suggestion that this object is intended to hold ink or paint.84 The shape of the object is very similar to that of both the hieroglyph for brazier (Q7) and the brazier depicted in the branding scene of Nebamun (fig. 4). The long, straight lines emanating from the brazier could be an alternative depiction of smoke, as seen in some depictions of braziers from Amarna,85 or perhaps the handles of branding-irons waiting to be used.

Textual evidence of branding Egyptian textual record Previous research has largely focused on the artistic depictions and physical evidence of the practice of body modification—perhaps because the textual evidence for tattooing is non-existent. There is no attested word for ‘tattoo’ nor even a word in the same semantic range (e.g., ‘mark’) with a determinative suggesting pricking, poking, or needles. In contrast, there is an Egyptian lexeme that refers to branding. The lexeme ȝb is written with the determinative for fire depicting a brazier (Q7) or metal ingot (N3486). The lexeme is used in four instances seemingly in the context of marking subservient individuals. In two of these texts, the subservient individuals being marked are named mryw/mrỉw, a Semitic loanword,91 usually translated as ‘groom’, since the word only appears in the context of the care of horses. This position has occasionally been interpreted as a ‘relatively high status’.92 However, in at least two contexts, the subservience of the mrỉw and their lowly status is emphasized. In P. Sallier I 7, 1, the mrỉw hold a position lower than a low-status farmer: pr pȝ rmṯ n mwt.f, ỉw.f m pd n ḥry.f … wnn pȝ s dỉw sw r ỉḥwty, pȝ nmḥw r mrỉw. ‘A man comes forth from his mother and runs to his master… the man hands himself over to a farmer, the nmḥw to a mrỉw’.93 In P. Koller 1, 1, the mrỉw is subservient (and perhaps even belong to) the stable master: ỉḫ dỉ.k ḥr.k r grg pȝ rksw n ḥtry nty ỉw.f r ḫʿrw ḥnʿ nȝ ḥrw-ỉḥ, m mỉtt nȝ mrỉw. ‘You should turn your attention to preparing the equipment of the teams that are going to Kharu, along with the stable-masters and their mrỉw’. In P. Anastasi, after the army is dismissed to the country, its followers94 (šmsw) are branded; this is very likely referencing the branding of prisoners of war, in line with the events unfolding in P. Harris: there, captives (women and children included) are branded with the name of pharaoh to mark them as ḥmw n mnš, galley labourers/slaves.

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MeatballDom t1_iwbc8ls wrote

In a literary context, the metaphor of branding is used as a mark of ownership of a man to his beloved: in the Chester Beatty love songs, one of the poems ends on the note that ‘she has branded (ȝbw.s) me with her seal (ḫtm)’, indicating that his heart belongs to her. Aramaic textual record The Aramaic texts, where this study was begun, offers more evidence and slightly more clarity. In all of the Aramaic examples, the individuals marked are always enslaved, whether bought, sold, or transferred. Since there are several words which could indicate the bodily marking, the following table also indicates the word used for the mark and the action of marking. Half of the texts (six out of twelve total) use šnt for both the mark itself and the action of marking; closely followed by sṭr for the action and šnt for the mark itself; two texts use just sṭr; and there are two texts that use unusual terminology (rwšm and ktb). The strange use of rwšm in SamPap.2 may be attributed to the fact that the text does not originate from Egypt and that it refers to the lack of a mark. The use of ktb in Lindenberger 18 is certainly unusual, but the text itself is odd, with two otherwise-unattested words.99 Considering the context as well as the placement of the mark, I suggest that this is also a brand and simply euphemistic phrasing. The placement of the brand on the right hand/arm in three of these texts not only suggests that this was the standard placement for a brand, but also mirrors two aforementioned instances of branding: the Medinet Habu inscription, which shows branding on the right arm/shoulder of the prisoners, and the Demotic cattle documents, of which three state that the cattle were branded on the right shoulder (ḥr pȝy.s / pȝy.f ḫpš wnm).100 The placement is further supported by the branding-irons themselves facing left, which means that the brand itself would face right—meaning that the brand faced outwards when placed on the right side of the body.101 The two remaining terms—sṭr and šnt —should be discussed individually, since one can be more easily traced through etymology (šnt) and the other is more of a conundrum (sṭr). Akkadian provides the most likely origin for šnt: the term parallels šindu/šendu/šimtu,102 a word defined as painted, marked, stamped, or branded.103 The use of šimtu parzilli to speak of a branding-iron in particular bears some similarity to the use of the metal ingot determinative for the Egyptian lexeme ȝb. In Babylonia, there seems to be little question that livestock and owned persons were branded.104 Legal texts and letters in Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Babylonian of the sixth and fifth centuries BC provide some evidence of the marking of slaves, all using similar terminology.105 The ‘mark of servitude’ (šindu amūti) is attested as a mark/brand to be placed upon slave women, and a letter orders that fugitives who have not been marked/branded should be put in fetters. Individuals donated to temples as širkūtu (oblates)106 were marked/branded (šimtu) with symbols reminiscent of those described in the Demotic cattle documents: a star for Eanna, a spade and stylus for Ezida.107 Slaves who were bought and sold are often described as having the names of their owners on their right hand or wrist—by the Seleucid Period, this practice was so common that the absence of a mark was worth mentioning.108 Despite the evidence of animal branding (and its association with šimtu and its cognates), some have suggested that the practice is tattooing due to the occasional use of šindu as ‘glue’ or ‘paint’.109 However, I think the most likely conclusion is that whatever practice was employed on animals was the same one used on enslaved persons, i.e. branding; Akkadian šimtu/šindu, describing this practice, can be readily enough compared with Aramaic šnt. On the other hand, the use of sṭr presents some difficulties in the Akkadian word from which sṭr ostensibly originates (šaṭāru).110 This word specifically refers to a text or inscription, not an image, leading some to suggest the two words (šimtu and šaṭāru) were intended for different purposes: šimtu111 and its cognates referred to marking with symbols, indicating ownership and inalienability, whereas šaṭāru referred to marking with text, indicating ownership and alienability.112 Herein lies the confusion: the conjunction of šnt (Akk. šimtu) and sṭr (Akk. šaṭāru) in the Aramaic texts represents a conjunction of two Akkadian words which tended to not be used together. Even when the two Akkadian words were used together, they seem to refer to different practices of bodily marking.113 The textual šaṭāru seems to be the practice used when a text needed to be legible (as in the case of a name) whereas a šimtu was pictographic.114 Although a distinction existed between šimtu and šaṭāru in the Akkadian texts, the conjunction in usage in the Egyptian texts suggests that in Egyptian Aramaic there was no longer a distinction between ‘textual’ or ‘non-textual’ marks, since šnt is used as a legible marker (cf. Saqqara 164a, TADB2.11, TADB3.6). This generalization in usage is unsurprising considering the semantic overlap of the two words, and lends some credence to the idea that the šnt and sṭr marks of Aramaic were both brands. Conclusions Subservient humans, in Egypt and elsewhere, were unquestionably marked, but at the outset of this paper the question remained regarding the nature of this marking. Although there is no direct evidence of human branding, the textual and archaeological evidence suggest that branding was the practice—and, alternatively, that tattooing was not. Tattooing in Egypt held special regard as a sexual, cultic, and particularly female practice. No tattoo design has yet been found to be repeated; each tattoo was a work of art, meant to be admired in an easily-visible location like the thigh or neck. Hand-poked tattoos, especially figural or textual, take a long time to apply and require skill to pierce the skin to the correct depth, replicate the design or text, and ensure minimal bleeding. In contrast, branding had a long history of marking cattle for ownership. The process is fast (three to five seconds), requires little skill, and a branding-iron could be used repeatedly. It is a short leap from branding cattle to branding chattel slaves, and it seems that, at least by the Late Period, this leap had occurred. The terminology used in the Aramaic contexts, though generalized from its Akkadian origins, does seem to parallel the practice in Babylon. The lack of physical evidence of branding, especially when contrasted with the existing physical evidence of tattooing, should not be considered a reason to forego branding as an existing practice in Egypt. Slaves and prisoners of war, the most likely bearers of brands, were the least likely to have been mummified at all, let alone well-enough to preserve the delicate uppermost layers of the skin. High-status women bearing elaborate tattoos, in contrast, are more likely to have been honoured with preservation. When Arsames wrote to his subordinate Nakhthor, ordering him to bring the new slaves into the yard and ‘mark (sṭr) them with my mark (šnt)’, previous scholarship has been inconclusive when translating the task, with Tuplin even stating, ‘what should we suppose Nakhthor was meant to have done?’115 In light of branding as a mark of ownership, the history of female cultic tattooing, the etymology of the Aramaic terms, and the archaeological evidence, it is far more likely that Nakhthor and his contemporaries did not tattoo these unfortunate individuals, but rather branded them to permanently mark them as property of Arsames, no better than any other property brought into his yard. Human branding remains a cruel and painful way to mark an individual and certainly provides further avenues for research in the field of Egyptian slavery. The evidence suggests that the brand-mark of this period was on the right arm or hand, always visible, marking a human being as property, forever. This is not only a remark on the status of slavery as a permanent condition, even when manumitted, but also a remark on the status of slavery itself: with a brand, an enslaved person carried a marker shared with other pieces of property like cattle.116

Acknowledgments This article is a version of a talk given at the ARCE 2021 Annual Meeting (winner of the Best Student Paper competition). I’d like to extend gratitude to the individuals present at the talk for their questions and comments and additionally to colleagues who provided valuable feedback. I am indebted to Seth Richardson for his insight into Akkadian terminology and characteristically detailed commentary on early drafts of this paper. Funding The author did not receive funding for this project.


someterriblethrills t1_iwbpjg9 wrote

A strange quantifier in the title. I can't think of a way to brand a living creature that isn't brutal.

Fun fact, the British navy only abolished branding as a punishment for desertion in 1871.

Article on the topic


pgm123 t1_iwbukw8 wrote

>A strange quantifier in the title. I can't think of a way to brand a living creature that isn't brutal.

I was thinking the same thing. It's brutal and cruel. For some reason, adding the qualifier brutal has the unintentional effect of making it seem like there are instances of branding that isn't brutal?


HerbertWest t1_iwc9moc wrote

The word "brutal" implies enacted violence. Consensual ritual branding is arguably not "brutal." Something isn't brutal just because it's painful; it's the presumably nonconsensual nature of the branding plus the pain that would make it so.


someterriblethrills t1_iwcuwdd wrote

The lack of consent is already in the title, given that it's describing an action inflicted on a slave.

Edit: Threads been locked so I can't reply but thanks for clarifying, I misunderstood your comment. I thought you were talking about the title.


HerbertWest t1_iwcxtcn wrote

>The lack of consent is already in the title, given that it's describing an action inflicted on a slave.

I was responding to this bit in your post: "I can't think of a way to brand a living creature that isn't brutal."


TeamRedundancyTeam t1_iwcgn3t wrote

Well, in modern times we have ways to brand that isn't. In ancient times? Various levels of brutality was definitely your only option. I'm guessing ancient tattooing was probably the least painful way to brand someone?


VRPDW t1_iwcpsy2 wrote

This "research" is lacking, at least their attempt to convince people is lacking. They say the size is too small for anything but humans. Then they say there's a lot of additional evidence that corroborates this claim, yet they don't offer any of that. So after that entire article, the conclusion is they must be for human slaves because they are small.


Rear-gunner OP t1_iwb9q3l wrote

A new study suggests that small branding irons from ancient Egypt were likely used to mark the skin of human slaves.

Until recently, Egyptologists had assumed that these were used to brand cattle but now it appears too small that it precludes them from being used on cattle or horses.

Interestingly some of these ancient Egyptian branding irons are almost exactly the same size as branding irons used by Europeans on African enslaved people during the trans-Atlantic slave trade much later.

The article is here


Zigazig_ahhhh t1_iwbf67l wrote

So there's no actual evidence? It's just someone saying, "Hey, these cattle brands are really small, and they look like human brands from thousands of years later and from a different region of the world."


pgm123 t1_iwbuxbr wrote

>So there's no actual evidence

The actual evidence is that texts say enslaved people were marked. It cites arguments that tattooing in Egypt was religious (so less likely for slaves) and the branding irons appearing to be better fitted for humans. But the primary evidence is the fact that enslaved people were marked.


Mindless_Challenge11 t1_iwbiupr wrote

Well what's the evidence that these ancient egyptian branding irons were intended for use on cattle in the first place? Genuinely curious here if anyone knows the answer!

(After all, comparing the evidence we have for their different possible uses would be the best way to evaluate the strength of this argument. For instance, if we had extant cow hides bearing brand-marks that matched the patterns on some of the irons, or visual depictions of branded cattle, or textual descriptions of people branding cattle using branding irons, that would be pretty strong evidence for that form of use.)


[deleted] t1_iwbg8fz wrote

I don't think it's that much of an unreasonable conclusion


Zigazig_ahhhh t1_iwbj1ci wrote

It's a perfectly reasonable conjecture. It is definitely an unreasonable conclusion.


Rear-gunner OP t1_iwblo28 wrote

It's a likely possibility


Zigazig_ahhhh t1_iwbo0m3 wrote

Yes, but the way the article presents it as a fact is disingenuous.


Lindvaettr t1_iwci9p6 wrote

It is a possibility. "Likely" adds too much implication of "more probable than other possibilities", which doesn't seem to be supported by the evidence presented.


YouAreGenuinelyDumb t1_iwbzd4f wrote

It’s all circumstantial evidence, but that’s often as good as it gets with ancient history.


Iertjepapiertje t1_iwc09f3 wrote

Not with the Romans or the Chinese, for example. Plenty of cultures kept records.


LateInTheAfternoon t1_iwc1wkd wrote

There are plenty of lacunae for those two civilizations as well despite what has survived. For certain times the dearth of sources is almost complete and mere conjecture the best that can be offered.


Metal-Scrunch t1_iwbes9v wrote

'Were likely used to mark the skin of human slaves' - so its all based on assumptions.


severed13 t1_iwbjspn wrote

Most of history is, since I would imagine you can’t ask any ancient egyptian slave owners directly


Jester252 t1_iwbmo5y wrote

That's what I love about history.

I want to see what humans in 1000 years think of Shaq statue.


BouncingBallOnKnee t1_iwbqvvs wrote

Being a basketball player, and basketball being a game of tossing balls into hoops, I'd say it was safe to say Shaq was probably one of the greatest shooters of his time.


Rebel_Skies t1_iwc2v4n wrote

It's obvious that no man of that time period could actually match the proportions of "The Ballplayer". The statue is overlarge to show how much of an important figure the man was in time of the bloodsports.


Kelmon80 t1_iwbrg2z wrote

Iron was a rare, expensive resource back then, and likely a huge investment for an ancient Egyptian farmer (or slave merchant, for that matter). But i fail to see why you can't brand cattle with some iron that's smaller than whatever is in use today. Even a finger-sized branding in the right position would still do its job: Differentiating who's cattle belongs to whom, even if it takes longer to figure out.

I mean, I'm not saying it couldn't have been used for slaves, but that's a huge assumption to make just based on size.


Rear-gunner OP t1_iwbskfh wrote

Actually if you read the article you would have read that these irons were made of bronze


pedrito_elcabra t1_iwchw60 wrote

Or goats, or sheep, etc etc. There's many other possible explanations... someone went with the most clickbaity one.


_W1T3W1N3_ t1_iwbi7rp wrote

Tattoos were widely available since 3000BC and are still used by criminal networks today. Something to think about.


Calligraphiti t1_iwc6b8n wrote

It's clear there is a religious bias on this conclusion. It's bad practice to draw conclusions about how things really went based on how you want them to have gone.


metropitan t1_iwbre4k wrote

it is weird to think that slavery being considered wrong (within larger social consciousness) only really came about in the last 300 years or so, and even then for a while the empires that profited the most off the trade, Britan, France had to spend the next 100 years or so still fighting against it, and even now an illegal slave trade exists, including places like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who have workers so impoverished and underpaid they may as well be slaves


Jahobes t1_iwbx6rg wrote

Slavery has been wrong off and on through out history.

It often doesn't start as explicit slavery but then after generations we rip the band-aid off and just go full slave-slave master.

Then we have a reformation movement and the whole thing starts over again.


balapete t1_iwcv5nm wrote

Just curious, any examples of a slow moral decline back into slavery?? I had assumed it was fairly abrupt with the idea that one civilization is overthrown by another who might bring slavery with it but not so much a gradual loss of human rights over generations within the same civilization.


[deleted] t1_iwc7o9e wrote



[deleted] t1_iwcb7g3 wrote



desirox t1_iwc3zfm wrote

We romanticize the ancient world but it was a brutal time. Power was everything. If you don’t have it you lived a cruel life


gdcunt t1_iwc92yv wrote

And you know what else sucks about slavery? ... the hours!


Ok_Tourist5815 t1_iwc3u9t wrote

Is there such a thing as non brutal branding?


UwasaWaya t1_iwcg10y wrote

When you do it tenderly. Like while everyone's listening to Lionel Richie.


HG_Shurtugal t1_iwbm4ls wrote

Is there such a thing as being unbrutally branded.


CountAurelian t1_iwbzaqr wrote

Yeah you get a sticker that says “ I worked for free today!”


tinolovespups t1_iwbn9e6 wrote

I mean honestly what do they expect from old times.


yungPH t1_iwcjx7b wrote

As opposed to non-brutally branded?


Sunbolt t1_iwc1wk4 wrote

I’m curious what the brand actually looked like.


MentallyMusing t1_iwcsuq5 wrote

Thanks so much for sharing.... Very interesting, I'll be keeping my eyes open for other papers shared by students with the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) as well!


Welshhoppo t1_iwcy643 wrote

Locking this down because some of you can't behave.


rhutton83 t1_iwcaspp wrote

If I could know just one thing about ancient history it would be HOW WERE THE PYRMAIDS MADE? God it would be soo interesting to hear for sure


xXx420BlazeRodSaboxX t1_iwbvy0c wrote

Yeah, pretty sure that was still being done in the 1800s...