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Egyptian Cartouche: Definition, Symbols & Pharaohs

Instructor: Jessica M Lathrop

Jessica has a master's degree in history with a focus on ancient and classical civilizations.

A cartouche is an important symbol in Ancient Egypt. Find out more about the definition, purpose and historical impact of the Egyptian cartouche in this lesson.

What is a Cartouche?

Example of an Egyptian Cartouche
Cartouche Example

A cartouche is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic name plate, shaped like an oval with a horizontal bar at the base of the oval and a king's name written inside of the oval. If there was not enough space, for example, if the name was excessively long, the Egyptians could write the cartouche horizontally instead of vertically, and put the line on the side going up and down, instead of horizontally at the bottom of the oval.

The word cartouche is actually the French word for a gun cartridge or bullet. When Napoleon took his army on an expedition to Egypt, the soldiers remarked that the shape of the name plate looked like a cartouche, or gun cartridge, and the name stuck. The Egyptian name for the cartouche was shen, which means 'to encircle.'

Purpose of a Cartouche

Traditionally, the cartouche was written on tombs and coffins to mark who was inside. The ancient Egyptians believed that each person had two souls, the Ba and the Ka, which needed to find their way back to the body after death in order to move on to the afterlife. Sometimes, the pharaohs would wear an amulet-style cartouche, to help ward them from evil spirits and attract good luck.

Cartouche of Osorkon II
Osorkon II

The cartouche is a hieroglyphic symbol, with the oval signifying a rope, and the horizontal line symbolizing the rope being tied together at the bottom to form an enclosed loop. It was believed by the Egyptians that the rope circle represented everything enclosed by the sun, symbolizing the king's power over the universe.

Uniqueness and Individuality

Because the cartouche was primarily used to label an artifact (tomb, statue, amulet) with the pharaoh to which it belonged, each king's cartouche is different. While the oval and line may be the same from symbol to symbol, the name of each pharaoh is placed inside, making each pharaoh's cartouche different from another. This allows archaeologists to decipher whose tomb, icon or other artifact they are looking at. A cartouche may also appear in Egyptian texts, and can be especially useful for historians to understand which pharaoh wrote the text or is being discussed in the wording.

Rosetta Stone

The cartouche was a key part of decoding the Rosetta Stone, the stone tablet that was used by historians to translate hieroglyphics into English, making it possible to decode other Egyptian writings. In 1814, an Egyptologist named Thomas Young recognized the cartouches of King Ptolemy and Queen Berenice and was able to successfully match repeated hieroglyphics and similarity of various letters, to fill in some of the blanks that other historians struggled with while translating the Rosetta Stone.

Cartouche of Ptolemy III
Ptolemy

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