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Deir el-Medina ostraca

In the late New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC), after the Amarna Period, the tomb of the king took the form of a series of corridors and chambers, decorated the full length, cut in the desert valley west of Thebes, where most Eighteenth Dynasty kings had also been buried - that site is now famous as the Valley of the Kings. The decoration of a late New Kingdom royal tomb required a full-time team of draughtsmen, carpenters and their suppliers; the team was called 'the crew of the Tomb'. The 'crew' was housed in a walled village in a desert valley just west of the fields on the west bank at Thebes; Egyptologists use the Arabic name for the site, Deir el-Medina 'monastery of the town'.

The administrators and draughtsmen were literate, and for a convenient writing-material they often used limestone chips (present in abundance in the desert, and from the tomb-cutting work). These men belong not to a working class, but a highly specialised group of royal craftsmen working on the most important project of the reign. The chippings on which they wrote and drew are known in Egyptology as 'ostraca'. Together with the relatively numerous papyri from the site, these ostraca represent the largest group of day-to-day written records surviving from Ancient Egypt. The ostraca are dispersed around the world; they are often rapidly and cursively written, and so difficult to decipher. Fortunately the outstanding Czech scholar Jaroslav Cerny transcribed a high proportion, and the ostraca are accessible through his notebooks (archived in the Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

see a selection of ostraca

Deir el-Medina ostraca in the Petrie Museum



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