Decorative Cones

Mesopotamian Influence in Egypt - Part III

Decorative clay and ceramic cones were used in Egypt in funerary contexts.

Funerary Cones are pottery cones that are found quite commonly in Theban tombs of the Middle Kingdom to Late Kingdom Period.

They have a flat circular or rectangular base bearing an impression of a stamp, usually with the official titles and name of the tomb owner.

Funerary cones are clay cones that were inserted above a tombs entrance usually in the space between the top of the doorway and the ceiling with the name and title of the deceased. Clay funerary cones originally decorated the mud brick facades of private tombs at Thebes. It is thought by some that they were embedded in rows to form friezes and may have been intended to represent the ends of roof beams. The flattened base of each cone, which was all that remained visible, was stamped with the titles and name of the tomb owner.

A more commonly held theory between archaeologists is that they (and funerary cones are usually found here) were imbedded in the section of wall above the door and were used to name the tomb owner and acted sort of like a house name in that they told you to whom the tomb belonged.


Here are examples of clay funerary cones from Egypt with hieroglyphic inscriptions:


The numbers are Petrie Museum tags identifying the objects.

Many Egyptian funerary chapel facades of the 18th and 26th Dynasty were decorated with inscribed rows of clay cones. I have been unable to locate photographs showing the use of the cones in the walls of those tombs.

An example of a Mesopotamian clay cone with cuneiform inscription may be found at the web site of the University of Minnesota.

Mosaic clay cones were first used to adorn architectural forms in Sumeria about 3000 BC. Throughout Mesopotamia the cones were used commonly for wall decorations. One building had approximately 2,500 solid clay cones inserted into the "adobe" walls. Individually made from different clays, the cones were fired to create a monochromatic tonal image.

Ceramic wall cones were also used, some with bitumen-dipped heads (Stein 1999a:fig. 7). Wall cones were a common form of Uruk architectural decoration throughout 4th millennium southern Mesopotamia and at Uruk colonies such as Jebel Aruda and Hassek.

  The mystery of how the idea of cones started was slowly unraveled by Professor Denise Schmandt-Besserat's at the University of Texas in Austin. When archeologists first discovered tiny forms of the cones they were at a loss how to explain them. Flinders Petrie proposed that they were used to hold objects up away from the glowing floor of a high-temperature ceramic furnace. Other people thought they were used to determine the melt temperature of the furnace, thus to serve as an indicator of the heat within a furnace. Here are some examples of these tiny objects from Çatalhöyük in Anatolia.


The following illustration is taken directly from the web files of the Petrie Museum:


Museum number - UC47321

Object group - clay cones
Description - Small ceramic cones used as supports for vessels in the kiln during firing. Petrie suggested that this group were Ptolemaic in date because of their size.
Period - Ptolemaic Period
Found at - Memphis
Material - clay
Measurements - height 1.0 cms

But Professor Denise Schmandt-Besserat developed other ideas. The following account is written by Ada Calhoun.

 photo by John Anderson
December 10, 1999:

Dr. Denise Schmandt-Besserat's great discovery -- that the origins of writing are actually found in counting -- began, as most such groundbreaking work does, with a seemingly unrelated pursuit. When the University of Texas at Austin professor began her academic career in the 1960s, at issue was not "Where did writing come from?" but rather "What in heaven's name are all these little bits of clay?" At nearly every Middle Eastern archeological site, in addition to the urns and other such explainables, deep down there were baffling little pieces of fired clay. For years no one knew what they were, though it was evident they were something. In one of several frustrated attempts to classify the tokens, the University of Pennsylvania's Carleton S. Coon wrote in his report on Belt Cave, Iran: "From levels 11 and 12 come five mysterious unbaked conical clay objects looking like nothing in the world but suppositories. What they were used for is anyone's guess." Then along came Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Fresh from study at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris, the French-born graduate student, through a number of fellowships and grants, began what would be more than two decades of combing archives and sites all over the world trying to discover, and then to prove, what the clay cones, spheres, disks, and cylinders -- "tokens," as she called them -- might have been. For 30 years, article by article, Schmandt-Besserat has built an ironclad case to explain a mystery that foiled archeologists, anthropologists, and philosophers for hundreds of years.

What she found was that the tokens comprised an elaborate system of accounting that was used throughout the Middle East from approximately 8000 to 3000 B.C.E. Each token stood for a specific item, such as a sheep or a jar of oil, and was used to take inventory and keep accounts. Ancients sealed the tokens in clay envelopes, which were marked with the debtor's personal "cylinder seal" (which acted as a kind of signature). After using this system for some time, a new one emerged: People began to impress the tokens into the side of the envelope before sealing them up, so they wouldn't have to break the seal (and thus the bargain) to check the envelope's contents. Eventually, it occurred to people that they didn't actually need to put the tokens in an envelope at all, and could just impress the tokens onto the clay in order to keep track of the account. Then still another transformation occurred -- the ancient Sumerians realized it was possible to simply inscribe with a stylus the image of the token. This served as the earliest type of written sign. Schmandt-Besserat had found her answer to the conundrum of how writing began: from counting. And slowly. Very, very slowly.

She had thus explained why so many pictographs looked so little like the things they were supposed to represent. Schmandt-Besserat filled in the missing link between the thing (a sheep, for example) and its sign (a circle with an X on it). As it turned out, the mark wasn't supposed to represent a sheep; it was supposed to represent the counter for the sheep. Schmandt-Besserat had a thrilling "Aha!" moment when the weighty reports on the archaic tablets from Uruk arrived in Austin through the inter-library loan service. "When I opened them at home," she says, "I could see, as I expected, that many signs were akin to tokens."