Cuneiform in the South

by Carolin Johansson
Temple remains at Tod, Upper Egypt. © Carolin Johansson

One of the main goals of GLoW is to produce a comprehensive overview of the use and spread of cuneiform inscriptions. We are still in the early phases of the project but I am already amazed by the number of places in peripheral areas where cuneiform finds have been made, far away from its heartland in Mesopotamia.

The southernmost example we have encountered thus far is actually quite a long way up the River Nile, in Upper Egypt. Tod, today a small village slightly south of Luxor, was an important temple site during Pharaonic times. It was dedicated to one of the major deities of the region, the god of war, Montu. While excavating the area in the 1930s, the French archaeologist Bisson de la Roque discovered a cache beneath a structure built by king Senuseret I (1956-1911 BCE). Inside four copper chests were artefacts in precious metals together with pieces of lapis lazuli and number of smaller objects. Surprisingly, many of them were in a distinctive un-Egyptian style and indicate foreign manufacture and import from the Aegean and Southwest Asia. This must have been an exotic gift for an Egyptian deity!

More than one hundred fragmentary cylinder seals were included in the treasure, today distributed between the Louvre and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Many of them bear geometrical patterns as well as figures of humans and animals in a style typical of Southern Mesopotamia during the early second and third millennium B.C.E. Six of the seals also include cuneiform signs, many of them illegible, but all of them probably spell personal names.

How these objects were sourced and assembled is unknown, but direct and indirect contacts between parts of Northeast Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East are attested for in great parts of ancient history. It is thus not surprising that we see foreign artefacts and occasionally cuneiform inscriptions popping up in archaeological excavations in these regions. Why a set of objects with such particularly foreign character was deposited as an offering to an Egyptian god is however rather astonishing. Perhaps was it the distant origins that made these boxes and their contents suitable as a precious offering for the divine warrior. Or was the treasure intended to act as tribute delivered by emissaries from Egypt’s neighbouring countries? Either way, the treasure in Tod reminds us that also the ancient world was to a large part interconnected and that that we shouldn’t be surprised to find even more distant discoveries of cuneiform script in the future.


Bisson de la Roque, F., G. Contenau, and F. Chapouthier. 1953. Le Trésor de Tôd. Vol. 11. Documents de Fouilles de l’Institut Français d’archéologie Orientale. Le Caire: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

Casanova, M., G. Pierrat-Bonnefois, P. Quenet, V. Danrey, and D. Lacambre. 2015. ‘Lapis Lazuli in the Tôd Treasure: A New Investigation.’ In Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Egyptologists: University of the Aegean, Rhodes. 22-29 May 2008, edited by P. Kousoulis and N. Lazaridis, 2:1619–40. Leuven: Peeters.

The Tod Treasure. Louvre. Accessed 1 April 2020.