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“One sings for you with the hand”: gestures in Old Kingdom musical ensemble scenes

posted on 2023-03-23, 02:00 authored by Austin MegierAustin Megier

In the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BC) musical ensemble scenes were frequently depicted on elite tomb walls. The most intriguing musician in these ensembles was the one who gestures to the instrumentalists: the singer-chironomist. Throughout the twentieth century, scholars (most notably Hans Hickmann) argued that these gestures were representative of a musical practice known as chironomy: a system of hand-signs, and a type of conducting, used by a musician to indicate melody and rhythm. Previous scholars in the disciplines of musicology as well as Egyptology have hypothesised the musical significance and musical meaning of these gestures. But until now there has been no study which comprehensively classifies and categorises the gestures according to their visual characteristics. This study combines an art historical approach with a digital humanities approach, establishing a digital database for a corpus of 101 musical ensemble scenes from the Old Kingdom. Using the 229 individual hand signs which have been identified from 140 singer-chironomists, this study establishes a typology of gestures. The study identified three types of gesture (general, special, and unique), and a total of 17 individual signs. The digital database has facilitated effective and reliable quantitative analysis of the gestures and gesture combinations, statistically revealing unique characteristics for many of the signs. The study also demonstrates the possibility for qualitative analysis based on its findings, namely through hypothesising that in a select number of scenes, the tomb owner was an active participant in the musical ensemble, and that successive figures of singer-chironomists represent a lapse of time and thus movement. The study provides the necessary foundation for facilitating future research into the musical significance and musical meaning of the gestures, and sheds new light onto the nature of Old Kingdom music and the practice of ancient Egyptian chironomy. 


Table of Contents

1. Introduction -- 2. The intersection of Egyptology and musicology: literature review -- 3. Art history and digital humanities: methodological approaches -- 4. The chironomic signs: a revised and expanded typology of gestures in Old Kingdom musical ensemble scenes -- 5. Musical significance and musical value: an assessment of previous theoretical frameworks for the musical analysis of chironomic gestures -- 6. Successive movement and the tomb owner as an active participant: a qualitative analysis of select scenes -- 7. Conclusion -- Bibliography -- Appendix A: The corpus of Old Kingdom musical ensemble scenes [1]-[100] -- Appendix B: Singer-chironomists -- Appendix C: Instrumentalists -- Appendix D: Unattributed Inscriptions


Appendix A of this thesis is suppressed due to copyright. An electronic copy of Appendix A can be supplied for private research and study upon request by contacting

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes

Department, Centre or School

Department of History and Archaeology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Susanne Binder

Additional Supervisor 1

Naguib Kanawati


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231 pages

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