In Egyptian hieroglyphs, a cartouche // is an oval with a horizontal line at one end, indicating that the text enclosed is a royal name. They came into common use during the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty under Pharaoh Sneferu, but earlier examples date to the mid Second Dynasty on Cylinder Seals of Seth-Peribsen. While the cartouche is usually vertical with a horizontal line, if it makes the name fit better it can be horizontal, with a vertical line at the end (in the direction of reading). The Ancient Egyptian word for it was shenu, and it was essentially an expanded shen ring. In Demotic, the cartouche was reduced to a pair of brackets and a vertical line.
At times amulets were given the form of a cartouche displaying the name of a king and placed in tombs. Such items are often important to archaeologists for dating the tomb and its contents. Cartouches were formerly only worn by Pharaohs. The oval surrounding their name was meant to protect them from evil spirits in life and after death. The cartouche has become a symbol representing good luck and protection from evil. Egyptians believed that one who had their name recorded somewhere would not disappear after death. A cartouche attached to a coffin satisfied this requirement. There were periods in Egyptian history when people refrained from inscribing these amulets with a name for fear they might fall into somebody's hands, conferring power over the bearer of the name.
The term cartouche was first applied by French soldiers who fancied that the symbol they saw so frequently repeated on the pharaonic ruins they encountered resembled a muzzle-loading firearm's paper powder cartridge (cartouche in French).
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Cartouches were a common motif in Baroque, Rocaille and Rococo. They were used on some Baroque buildings, for writing information like the initials of the owner, the year in which the building has been built, or just as a decration. Another use is in cartography, where cartouches were made in one of the corners of the map, for writing shot descriptions.
Map of Greece and western Anatolia with a cartouche in the bottom left corner, drawn in 1791
Cartouche on a building from Sankt Petersburg (Russia)
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- Milano, Civiche Raccolte Archeologiche e Numismatiche inventory item RAN 997.02.01
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