the translation usually given for Egyptian gnwt (plural of gnt), a word whose cognates suggest an object inscribed on soft material such as wood or ivory (cf. gnwty, “carver in wood”). The term presumably derives from those rectangular wooden or ivory “labels” that occur in such abundance in mortuary contexts from the late Naqada III through the Early Dynastic period. The evidence of these labels begins to fail at the beginning of the second dynasty, to be replaced by the “publication” of the sequence of year rectangles during the later Old Kingdom in the form of the Palermo Stone, the Memphite fragments, and the reused block (sarcophagus) from South Saqqara.

The earliest examples (specifically from Abydos) were intended for the identification of commodities (and sometimes their sources) within storage facilities; but shortly, in the evolution of the form, the need to date securely the act of storage began to take precedence over all other considerations. Labels from the beginning of the first dynasty give prominence to the king's Horus-name (sometimes accompanied by the nb.ty name) with the mention of an event or events that signal a particular year. The whole is either freely distributed over the surface of the label or is arranged horizontally in two to four registers provided with “ground” lines. The events commemorated, which range from three to eight or nine in number, are confined to the upper registers, while the lowest is reserved for the notation of some commodity and its amount. It became customary to list on the extreme left, behind the king's name, the titles and name of an official (responsible for the item in question?). The extant labels, coming as they do from storage areas in a tomb context, are thus commodity-specific. But they are presumably merely adapted copies of a set of archetypal year labels, composed at the royal residence for various uses in the administration. These “master” versions of the gn(w)t for a given year would not require such specificity, and the Palermo Stone suggests that the bottom register in the archetype was occupied by a datum crucial to the running of the state as a whole—the height of the annual inundation.

Throughout the Old Kingdom, both contents and format of the annals evolved rapidly. By the reign of Wadji a prominent rnpt-sign was inscribed on the right side, enclosing the registers and indicating a single year's span. The reign of Den introduced a bifurcation of the field into two vertical blocks, that on the right containing the events in multiple registers, and that on the left naming the king, official, and commodity. By the close of the first dynasty, the columnar format was beginning to dominate at the expense of the vertical registers. While for the first dynasty the recording scribe chose to commemorate a variety of event types, such as cultic acts, cult-statue carving, construction, battles, progresses, and taxation, by the second dynasty the need was clearly felt to regularize the content. To provide a sort of aide-mémoire in the growing sequence of gnwt, the scribes listed the biennial cattle count and royal progress in alternating year-rectangles, while the intervening years were signalized by noting another biennial event, a species of royal séance called the “Appearance of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt.” This event seems temporarily to have been dispensed with under Sneferu and was only sporadically revived by his successors, but reference to the cattle-count in all years became common: thus “the xth time of the [cattle]-count and “year after the xth time of the [cattle]-count.” No later than the reign of Khufu, the formula ir.n.f m mnw.f (“he made [it] as his monument”) appears and is used to introduce the king's bequests to the gods, such as gifts, chattels, endowments, statuary, and buildings. While the records of military campaigns and construction continue occasionally to appear, by the fifth dynasty it is the acts listed under the ir.n.f m mnw.f formula that multiply to such an extent that a much-expanded rectangle is needed. Thus, the format has become a vehicle to keep account of the disbursement of the king's largesse, and at the same time to promote his piety and his upholding of maat, while year-identification and sequence have declined in importance, to be covered by what is in reality a regnal year numbering in embryo.

Toward the close of the fifth dynasty, one or more kings—we may not be dealing with a single instance—chose to inscribe on stone the accumulated sequence of year rectangles, clearly available in the archives from the inception of the genre, perhaps for temple display. The result was a monument which, although it might have had value for practical reference, stressed the ideological truths of the continuum of the royal line (and thus divine favor), and the piety of later kings in honoring the gods.

Evidence as to how the gnwt were evolving as a genre begins to peter out before the close of the third millennium BCE. To judge from the reuse of a block containing an inscription of annals even before the close of the sixth dynasty, it would appear that monumental publication and display of gnwt had fallen into abeyance before the end of the Old Kingdom. The practice of keeping concise records of a year's events in the original rectangular format may itself have passed into obsolescence at this time.

Arguably the gnwt of the Old Kingdom, in whatever form they had survived, formed the basis of the true king list tradition. The latter, the presence of which is attested no later than the early twelfth dynasty, drew on a version of the gnwt that had already undergone some revision and midrashic embellishment. Reign lengths could not always be ascertained (compare the shortening of the fourth dynasty floruits of Sneferu, Khufu, and Khafre), and certain unhistorical constructs (for example, the “Ennead” principle) had begun to be brought to bear on the ordering and numbering of reigns.

The word gnwt, however, continues to appear in Egyptian texts until Greco-Roman times, albeit with restricted application. Its most frequent use is in scenes of royal legitimation (divine approbation [= “coronation”] or išd-tree scenes) in which some god, usually Thoth, promises the king many gnwt. To underscore this statement, which is tantamount to the prediction of a long reign, the god is often seen marking a notched rnpt frond, or writing the promises with a pen. Less common, though couched in a well-attested cliché, gnwt may be found in a trope which stresses negatively the uniqueness of a contemporary event: “[They] made a search in the annals of the most ancient kings … (but) nothing like this which happened to His Majesty had happened to them.” That the annals of the Old Kingdom remained available to scribes centuries later, possibly in derived copies on papyrus, can be argued on the basis of occasional and candid comments on the difficulty of reading the archaic diction. Manetho seems to have disposed of a garbled version of an archaic document which may have been based ultimately on the annals of the first and second dynasties.

The term “annals” is sometimes applied to types of records that deal with needs other than year identification and event commemoration. Already in the Old Kingdom, landowning institutions such as temple estates regulated their affairs by recourse to such account texts as office directories, service regulation books, and salary sheets, all organized within a calendrical as well as an annual framework. By the Middle Kingdom governmental (treasury, granary, etc.), temple, and judicial institutions were employing the daybook or journal (hrwyt) as a means to record day-to-day accounts (income and disbursements) and events (arrivals, departures, civil and military matters, court cases, etc.). These documents were sometimes excerpted to provide the skeleton of a hieroglyphic inscription, especially in the case of military exploits. (See, for example, the Tod inscription of Senwosret I, the “Annus mirabilis” of Amenemhet II, the “Annals” of Thutmose III, the triumph stelae of Amenophis II, and the Bubastite fragment of Thutmose IV.) The daybook of the king's house may also prove to be in part the source of the formal list on a stela of benefactions to the gods in the form of gifts, offerings, and endowments (although in some reigns the “inventory”—ipty—provided an additional source). Inasmuch as this genre of inscription belongs within the ir.n.f m mnw.f type of text, the list of benefactions as a genre descends from and perpetuates the latest motivation behind the true gnwt before its obsolescence.

While it is safe to say that gnwt were no longer being produced by the Middle Kingdom, the word continues to be used in contexts with a religious connotation. The gnwt are said to be deposited in the “House of Life” or the sd pavilion, or under the išd-tree, and to enjoy the aegis of a particular deity. While some of the writings thus labeled may ultimately derive, at several removes, from the annals of the Old Kingdom, the “historicization” of the realm of the gods probably involved an artificial extension of the annals of the ancestors backward into the time of the gods. Thus, the “annals (gnwt) of the gods,” which are said to be copied out in the House of Life, probably encompass mythological stories such as are preserved piece-meal in a wide variety of genres, beatification spells, “Underworld” books, magical incantations, mythological inventories, etc. The loose usage of the Late period probably coupled these texts, “the mighty acts of the gods” (in one Greek papyrus), with tales of the ancestors in a single, all-inclusive genre. It was this type of literature, at several removes from the true gnwt, that Manetho had access to in fleshing out his basic king list and writing up his Aegyptiaca in the third century BCE.


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Donald B. Redford