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Figured ostraca

In the absence of an ancient Egyptian treatise on art, the unfinished works, preparatory sketches and informal sketches provide invaluable insight into ancient Egyptian artistic production. The largest group of such material comprises thousands of sketches, mainly in black, or in black and red, on medium to large limestone flakes from the workplace and village of Ramesside Period craftsmen working on the tomb of the king at Thebes (Deir el-Medina). These are called 'figured ostraca' in Egyptology today. In addition to the Ramesside limestone ostraca, there are numerous others of the same period on pottery sherds, in particular from the Petrie and Quibell excavations at the Ramesseum; there are also a smaller number from earlier New Kingdom construction sites, notably the temples of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III at Deir el-Bahri, on the west bank at Thebes.

The subject matter varies greatly, and, without record of context or in instances of secondary deposition, function is often difficult to ascertain; often figured ostraca are interpreted as evidence for the training of artists, as in Deir el-Medina and the Ramesseum, but this is not made explicit by context or by accompanying writing. Large ostraca were found in tombs of kings in the Valley of the Kings, as if deposited as votive offerings; this is a particularly likely function in the case of images of deities, kings, and names of kings. Some examples bear an inscription identifying the donor; the back of ostracon UC 33193 bears the words in hieroglyphs 'Hathor lady of heaven, mistress of all gods - made by the scribe ... Qenena (?)'.

Figured ostraca in the Petrie Museum

Flinders Petrie retrieved ostraca from excavations, but he also collected dozens of ostraca; for his purchases, the places and dates of acquisition remain to be researched, and are given in the following table as 'not recorded', but most are probably from Thebes. These have been published in black and white (Page 1983). The list below gives the references to the publication.

Of the 82 items, 34 are of pottery; for these, Colin Hope contributed an important analytical study (in Page 1983, 59-62). His examination of the fabric of the pottery sherds confirmed the Middle Kingdom date of three items from Lahun (UC 6557, 6559i and ii).

A figured ostracon is a depiction on a limestone flake or pottery sherd, not an integral rock-face or an intact vessel; this is an important classificatory criterion in terms of artistic conception, because the drawing is made when the surface is already reduced to sketch size, and the artist draws the composition on that specifically reduced space. Some items in the list below, such as UC 33209 and 33238, seem to be parts of depictions on pottery vessels intact at the time of depiction; these are strictly speaking not 'figured ostraca' but the remains of decorated pottery vessels. For this distinction, see the comments by Colin Hope in Page 1983, 63, commenting on the joined pair of sherds now numbered UC 35910. Like UC 33238, that pair of sherds was inked in modern times with the mark 'O'; this was used in different ways by Petrie and contemporary excavators, but one use was to identify material from the tomb of Djer in the First Dynasty royal cemetery at Abydos. In later periods the tomb of Djer was identified as the burial place of the god of the dead Osiris; excavations have uncovered votive offerings there from the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, including pottery vessels inscribed with hieroglyphic or hieratic inscriptions and/or decorated with scenes of a person offering to Osiris.

Taking into account this distinction between (1) decorated pottery vessels and (2) drawings on fragments of pottery already broken at time of drawing, how many figured ostraca are there in this list?


UC number subject date provenance Page 1983 cat.no.
1585 baboon Amarna Period Amarna 61
2227 man carrying bag mid Dynasty 18 Thutmose IV temple 46
6557 Bes-like childbirth deity late Middle Kingdom Lahun pyramid quarry 8
6559i standing man late Middle Kingdom Lahun pyramid debris 41
6559ii seated cloaked figure late Middle Kingdom Lahun pyramid debris 42
15946 monkey and bust Ramesside Period Amenhotep II temple? 48
15947 face of nobleman Ramesside Period Ramesseum storerooms 31
26937 horse and chariot New Kingdom not recorded 51
33190 woman and Sekhmet Ramesside Period not recorded 9
33191 the god Thoth Ramesside Period not recorded 17
33192 the god Ptah Ramesside Period not recorded 2
33193 Hathor cow (illustrated above) New Kingdom not recorded 10
33194 winged goddess Isis New Kingdom not recorded 5
33195 the god Ptah New Kingdom not recorded 1
33196 the god Thoth Ramesside Period not recorded 18
33197 head of person with earring Ramesside Period not recorded 33
33198 polychrome, Bes New Kingdom not recorded 7
33199 bull deity New Kingdom not recorded 11
33200 fighting bulls, man New Kingdom not recorded 58
33201 bird hieroglyphs (fragment) New Kingdom not recorded 65
33202 bull and man New Kingdom not recorded 57
33203 wigged falcon head, twice New Kingdom not recorded 67
33204 king smiting enemy New Kingdom not recorded 22
33205 boats uncertain (predynastic?) not recorded 78
33206 donkey head, Amun, signs New Kingdom not recorded 55
33207 goose New Kingdom not recorded 73
33208 ritual scenes in 3 registers New Kingdom not recorded 47
33209 leaping bull and duck Amarna Period not recorded 56
33210 king with elaborate crown New Kingdom not recorded 24
33211 official, profile with stubble New Kingdom not recorded 30
33212 kneeling goddess New Kingdom not recorded 6
33213 head of man, twice New Kingdom not recorded 36
33214 standing official, twice, and unidentified signs on reverse New Kingdom not recorded 44
33215 lion (also on reverse), man Ramesside Period not recorded 60
33216 hieroglyphs New Kingdom not recorded 64
33217 dvine-king-child Amarna Period ? not recorded 50
33218 head of a Libyan ? Ramesside Period ? not recorded 35
33219 king wearing Blue Crown New Kingdom not recorded 25
33220 lapwing (?) Ramesside Period ? Deir el-Bahri 72
33221 the god Osiris New Kingdom not recorded 23
33222 vulture with prey (?) Ramesside Period not recorded 70
33223 girl with cup Ramesside Period not recorded 49
33224 ram (hieroglyph?) New Kingdom not recorded 14
33225 ram with uraeus New Kingdom not recorded 16
33226 ram fore (hieroglyph?) New Kingdom not recorded 15
33227 duck in flight Ramesside Period ? Deir el-Bahri 71
33228 hyena hindquarters New Kingdom not recorded 63
33229 winged disk, jackal New Kingdom ? not recorded 13
33230 quail chick hieroglyph New Kingdom not recorded 66
33231 grasshoppers (also reverse) New Kingdom not recorded 77
33232 crocodile tail New Kingdom ? not recorded 74
33233 grasshopper head New Kingdom not recorded 76
33234 horse head Ramesside Period ? not recorded 52
33235 horse head, door bolt sign Ramesside Period ? not recorded 54
33236 two horse heads (chariot) Ramesside Period ? not recorded 53
33237 standing man New Kingdom not recorded 37
33238 seated and standing man New Kingdom not recorded 39
33239 kneeling man, offering Ramesside Period Abydos? 38
33240 lower part seated figure New Kingdom not recorded 43
33241 hieroglyphs New Kingdom not recorded 81
33242 jackal head (mask?), cobras and crocodile head (?) New Kingdom not recorded 82
33243 face shown full frontal New Kingdom ? not recorded 34
33244 official, profile with stubble New Kingdom not recorded 32
33245 standing man (?) New Kingdom not recorded 40
33246 man before Ptah New Kingdom not recorded 3
33247 standing man uncertain not recorded 45
33248 title He of the Two Ladies New Kingdom not recorded 28
33249 falcon with triple cobra New Kingdom not recorded 19
33250 title He of the Two Ladies New Kingdom not recorded 29
33251 bed chamber ? New Kingdom not recorded 79
33252 standing man, object signs Ramesside Period not recorded 80
33253 frontal male animal or child? New Kingdom not recorded 62
33254 cryptic signs New Kingdom not recorded 69
33255 ibis and hieratic signs 'Thoth' New Kingdom not recorded 68
33256 Osiris and imyut emblem New Kingdom not recorded 4
33257 cartouches of Amenhotep I Ramesside Period not recorded 27
33258 man and Ahmose Nefertari Ramesside Period not recorded 26
33259 dog attacking prey ? New Kingdom not recorded 59
33260 king offering to Min-Amun Ptolemaic Period ? not recorded 21
35811 scarab and hieroglyphs New Kingdom ? not recorded 75
35812 cobra before offering-table New Kingdom not recorded 20
35813 bull sacrifice image? New Kingdom not recorded 12


References Publications of other collections of ostraca


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