What is the origin of the word “cartouche”?
Once again, I have come across the popular, but I feel incorrect, folk etymology of the term “cartouche” (the oval frames within which royal and divine names were written in ancient Egypt), this time in a letter to the editor in the Spring issue of Biblical Archeology Review (Three Cheers for Hieroglyphs!). The writer states, “Champollion realized that the format of royal names resembled the cartridge pouch carried by the French soldiers in Egypt. Thus the humble name of a French soldier’s pouch—cartouche—came to denote the names of ancient Egypt’s greatest kings.”
As pointed out in my book Cartouches, Field Guide and Identification Key, (Carolina Academic Press 2022), by the time of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, 1798-1801, the term “cartouche” had long been used to describe an ornamental frame-like device in either a painting, map or sculpture which could enclose a coat of arms or other inscription or symbol. Over 100 years before Napoleon’s campaign, Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 1694, defined “cartouche” in much the same terms. (see https://artflsrv04.uchicago.edu/philologic4.7/publicdicos/bibliography?head=cartouche)
Usually the claim is that the pharaohs’ name rings resemble a rifle cartridge, not a pouch. In any event, cartouches, on maps or sculpture, had been around for a long time before Champollion.
The gilded figure on the left is a generic “cartouche” that could be used on a piece of artwork (source: Dreamstime). The stone figure on the right is an architectural cartouche found in downtown Honolulu.
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