Hieroglyphs are a kind of pictorial art. Over thousands of years they did not lose any of their original pictorial character and they also retained their character as symbols. In paintings and reliefs, depiction and writing are closely related and complement each other. For example, the illustration, generally larger than the caption, can serve as the caption's determinative. In the composition of a flat painting, the writing serves an autonomous function. Horizontal and vertical lines subdivide registers and large wall areas or serve as borders for painted scenes. Thus, it is difficult to differentiate between the concepts “caption” and “inscription.” In a broader sense, captions are any lines of hieroglyphs on pictures—that is, in reliefs and paintings—in which the direction of the writing is oriented toward persons and objects and in which the text does not extend beyond the picture. Even ritual scenes in Greco-Roman temples can be said to have captions, although there the writing follows fixed, definite patterns—as in royal and divine framing columns and spells—and shapes the scenes. The texts accompanying the figures (personifications, priests, etc.) of the processions that are depicted on basement and stairs, usually also arranged according to a definite pattern, are also called “captions.” Secondary pictorial captions also appear, mostly as Hieratic inscriptions by visitors, or they supplement older captions to adapt them to new cult conditions.

For the purposes of this article, a narrower definition of caption will be used: texts integrated into a picture that, through changes in the direction of the writing—right and left, horizontal and vertical—harmonize completely with both the composition and the orientation of the figures. In some cases, these texts are also “reversed” or “retrograded,” without necessarily following a definite, fixed pattern. Through time, the picture and writing were integrated and the size of the caption developed, according to both historical conditions and aesthetic influences. The range runs from a sparing use of a few hieroglyphs—mostly names and indications of rank or title—to the narrative captions arranged in large blocks—in Ramessid historical pictures—and from the lavish use of captions (prompted by horror vacui) in the large mastabas of the fifth and sixth dynasties to the speeches by gardeners and overseers that serve as divisions between the registers in the tomb of Petosiris.

In most cases, the captions enhance the appeal of a work, in terms of content and form, if they are integrated into the composition and harmonize with it. Occasionally, however, captions can seriously jeopardize the autonomy of a picture and even overshadow it. Their unlimited placement may serve to foreshorten the depth of the background, so that it may become nothing more than a two-dimensional surface for the caption. The viewer experiences the background as alternately revealing an indeterminate three-dimensional depth and a two-dimensional flatness. To this tension do the Ramessid historical pictures owe their uniqueness.

The use of captions together with pictures has an amazingly long tradition; for example, the names of the prisoners that appear on the Libyan relief in the temple of Sahure, which are also depicted in the temples of Unas and Pepy II, are still noted in the temple of Taharqa in Kawa in the twenty-fifth dynasty. The captions do not, however, necessarily lend a picture greater authenticity and historicity; for example, the famine reliefs from the Unas causeway lost some of their originality when the block with the relief depicting starving bedouins was discovered in the temple of Sahure. Captions can also diverge in content from their pictorial setting, as in the myth of the god-king's birth or in the depiction of the Battle of Kadesh, particularly when they are intended for a literate as well as an illiterate public. From the third dynasty until Meroitic times captions can be found in reliefs and paintings, on the walls of tombs and temples, less frequently on coffins, and also on the stelae and stelae chapels of the twelfth dynasty.

The transition from captions as text integrated into a picture to illustrations as pictures integrated into a text was fluid. Captions had multiple functions: as headings, they explained pictures; they identified persons by name, occupation, and title; they identified objects by name, number, material, and dimensions. They also supplemented a picture with information and immortalized its meaning. The immortalization of the name of a person was of special importance.

In the mid-fifth dynasty, captions took on a new function—that of recording direct speech. In most cases, the dialogues are written directly next to the human figures on the same level as their heads, similar to the speech balloons in present-day comic strips. The group of captions that Adolf Erman labeled “speeches, calls, and songs” appeared as early as the “world chamber” of the sun temple of Newoserre Any and in tombs in the scenes of everyday life—and they were used until the end of the pharaonic era. Apart from such mural paintings, these captions are mentioned only very rarely; the most detail about them can be found in tomb inscriptions of the seventh century BCE, in which the conversation among the workers is characterized as “quarreling” (sḫwn) and “loud praises” (sḏʒm cʒ), and the visitor is supposed to hear that, as well as the “singing of the musicians” and the “lamenting of the mourners.” The dialogues, singing, and lamenting are thus presumed to be audible, at least for the literate elite.

Although some passages from the Coffin Texts are interpreted as substantiating that captions allude to the hereafter, the scenes of daily life were depicted iconographically. Mostly, the speeches and calls were concerned with matters of this world and did not allude to resurrection. During the Old Kingdom, the Beautiful West was considered the dwelling place of the dead and thus a continuation of this world. Since the tomb represents a symbolic extension of this world into the hereafter, the deceased took this world with him into the next in the form of mural paintings and tomb furnishings. Even when the notions about the hereafter changed at the end of the Old Kingdom, the tradition of the calls continued in the paintings.

At their most plentiful, in the fifth and sixth dynasties, the speeches and calls contained commands to animals, onomatopoeic drover calls, and interjections (e.g., “gee,” “run”); names, even affectionate ones, for cattle (e.g., “friend,” “brother”); or exhortations to work (e.g., “Let's get to work, servant girls!”); terms of address by the workers for the overseer (e.g., “prince,” “patron”) and for each other (e.g., “my dear,” “comrade,” “he who is with me,” “bird catcher,” “herdsman”), as well as mocking and bantering terms (e.g., “loudmouth,” “chatterbox”) and even terms of abuse (e.g., “thief,” “whoremaster,” “blockhead,” “shitter”). Among these captions, dialogues occur very frequently, mostly in the form of exhortations to work, to hurry up, and as commands and compliant answers, often couched in idioms found only here (“I do [this] so you will praise it,” “I do what you praise”), which take the place of the usual “yes, sir!” or “upon my life.” A certain question-and-answer play is typical for depictions of the grain harvest and asks for the most hardworking man; an individual or a chorus then answers: “I am the one!” This play occurs in numerous variations and was also applied to other types of work; it was still in use in the tombs of the Middle Kingdom. The captions also frequently refer to human weaknesses and needs, for example the recurring calls for beer during the harvest (“Bring me beer, I am cutting bšʒ malt”) or for Sokar beer among the metal workers. These calls are often accompanied by apotropaic gestures—warding off evil—as for example in the depiction of the birth of a calf or that of wading across a canal (“Your arm above the water!”). Several variations have been found of a longer incantation to ward off a crocodile, addressed by its cover name šj. Since calls and incantations often use the same or similar phrasing, it may be assumed that the artist drew upon a repertory of phrases. Even individual figures and their titles are probably taken from a repertory—for example the “foreman of the fishermen” is often depicted with his outstretched arm resting on a stick. The titles and refrains of songs in captions bear witness to the general fondness for singing, for example, while hauling in the fishing nets or while harvesting. These songs are so straightforward and plain that if it were not for the depiction of the flute player, they could easily be taken for simple calls; among them are true work songs whose rhythm supports the work—such as the thresher's song, which accompanies the animals in their circular walk with its frequent repetitions of “Thresh!”—as well as more artistic songs. In the scenes of daily life, the “Herdsman's Song,” which is known to occur eight times next to a flock of sheep, alludes to the world of the gods; the song of the sedan bearers, also found eight times, is dedicated to the lord of the tomb.

Liveliness, naiveté, seriousness, and humor are all characteristic of the speeches and calls of the fifth and sixth dynasties. Figures may exchange mocking remarks and banter together, but these are never directed at the lord of the tomb. Such remarks take aim at human short-comings—laziness, bragging, self-praise, and indulgence in eating and drinking. In this way, despite their generally standardized nature, the captions create a lifelike atmosphere and relieve the pathos of the paintings in the tombs. The figures of the workers are in various postures and contortions, with the clothing, hairstyles, and injuries typical of their trade. Thus they serve as a contrast to the lord of the tomb, who stands or sits calmly, in timeless, flawless repose. The calls in the captions also serve as a foil to the formulaic, official inscriptions dictated by decorum. It is hard to tell to what extent these calls, aside from their use of the demonstrative pronoun pʒ, tʒ, nʒ, reflect the language of the common people. The use of the demonstrative pronoun, however, can be connected to the “always saying ” or the “speech of the ḥwrw,” from which the lord of the tomb refrains. Captions often contain technical terms and reflect communication among skilled workers, but they were shaped by the presence of the lord of the tomb, so they are by no means a true picture of reality. Captions are concerned with a practical purpose and, for that reason, are an invaluable source for cultural history studies. They depict the richness and depth of life, show wit and humor, and serve to delight the lord of the tomb—and for that reason can be compared to the balloons in present-day comic strips. In contrast to the satires on various trades during the Middle Kingdom, these captions depict everyday life as tranquil.

Scenes depicting banquets and funeral repasts are also accompanied by captions, among them songs and calls connected with musical and dance performances. Songs accompanied by the harp are typical of festivals; their style is more refined than that of songs for everyday use. Quite often, these festival songs allude to the world of the gods and are dedicated to the lord of the tomb. According to Altenmüller (1998), the Hathor songs and the “Song of sn-n ṯrw” call on the lord of the tomb to return to this world. Due to their brevity, they are often very difficult to translate.

Very little such material is known from the First Intermediate Period; in Moʿalla, captions elucidate crude situations that are not entirely without originality. Occasionally, calls can be found written on stelae, as for example the one labeled Cairo JE 91095, which came originally from Herakleopolis. In Middle Kingdom provincial tombs, the tradition of the speeches and calls was continued but not to the same extent as it had been during the Old Kingdom. At Meir, there is a recognizable local tradition. The tombs at Beni Hasan are less lavishly furnished. The categories “human weaknesses,” “exhortations to work,” and “mocking replies” are still represented among the captions. Among the pure art songs, there is the song to the beef cattle imported from the Near East; another is the song to the field goddess Sechet, sung during the hauling in of the fishing net at Bersheh. Calls of dedication appear on coffins and, during the eleventh dynasty, dog names also appear in captions.

During the New Kingdom, the tradition of the calls was continued at first, but from the mid-eighteenth dynasty they became less frequent. On the whole, they became more like eulogies and were well-phrased and longer than before. Nevertheless, there are calls in their typical forms, as well as some terms of abuse (e.g., “You old geezer, you bald-pated peasant” in a mocking reply to a braggart) and “antiphonal” songs (hn n wsb) during work in the fields. (A paraphrase of the threshing song in Paheri's tomb at Elkab and its variant in the tomb of Setau inspired Bertolt Brecht to write the poem “Address of a Peasant to his Ox [after an Egyptian peasant song, 1400 B.C.E.].”)

Although most of the calls focus on providing for the lord of the tomb or simply report on the completion of the work assigned, the genre did not fall into oblivion. For example, the longest substantiated conversation comes from the tomb of Eje in Amarna and comments on the praises heaped upon him from the common man's point of view. The original intention, “to listen to the way the ordinary people speak,” was thus turned into an instrument of propaganda. Even in the Ramessid era, lively and witty calls are found in unexpected places, as in a conversation in the gold house in the Theban tomb of Paser (tomb 106) where the wish for a vacation is expressed. The cheers exchanged during banquets and the songs of the musicians form a group of their own; they are often of great poetic beauty. On the whole in the Ramessid era, captions became much less frequent as tombs became much more funereal.

On temple reliefs, captions also contain direct speech, as with the questions asked by the Puntites in the depictions of an expedition into Punt, the address of the bearers to the myrrh trees they had brought with them, or the dialogues between the butchers in the temple of Hatshepsut. In the captions accompanying Ramessid historical pictures, however, narrative style predominates and the captions are arranged in vertical lines and blocks. Topographic information may occasionally be found, such as the names of fortresses and wells. The depiction of the Battle of Kadesh is accompanied by mocking labels, for example, the picture of a man being held upside down and said to have almost drowned in the Orontes: “the miserable prince of Aleppo, who is held by his soldiers after His Majesty had thrown him into the water.”

In the Theban tombs of the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth dynasties, captions were mostly imitations that followed the patterns of the eighteenth dynasty. For example, a wall with butchery scenes from the temple of Hatshepsut was copied, including its captions, and from there made its way into others' tombs. Occasionally captions based on the pattern of the Old Kingdom were also used. The tradition continues even in Nubian Kawa. Later, the reliefs from the thirtieth dynasty from Heliopolis and Buto and the neo-Memphite reliefs of the twenty-sixth dynasty used headings in the style of the Old Kingdom. The end point of this development is represented by the idyllic scenes in the tomb of Petosiris, where tranquil and poetic calls form the setting for the thoughtful rule and social sensitivity of the lord of the tomb; they are closely related to the (auto)biographical texts but are very different from the serious language of the Old Kingdom.


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Waltraud Guglielmi; Translated from German by Sabine H. Seiler and Martha Goldstein