Living stones, two ostraca

Ostracon with a pig and child, Musée de Louvre, ParisToday we are accustomed to write on paper, but the ancient Egyptians used many different materials such as papyrus, clay tablets, bones, wax tablets, and also ostraca.

Ostraca (singular ostracon) are very important because they help us to understand the daily life, give insight in the development of the ancient language and preserve important evidence for the understanding of artistic methods and developments. The word ostracon derives from the Greek word for 'shell'. Egyptologists and modern archaeologists use this word to specify flat flakes of limestone or potsherds inscribed with texts or images. They were used through the ages of Egypt's history and are found along the Nile valley. However, most of the ostraca are datable from the New Kingdom (Dynasty 18-20). Lots of them were discovered near Deir el-Medina, a planned settlement built during the New Kingdom, which provided a function for the state. This settlement, situated on the west of Thebes, was a village where the workmen, responsible for the construction and decoration of the royal tombs, lived with their families. Ostraca have been found in the remains of their houses, tombs, chapels. However, the greatest amount derived from a dump, near the village. All these ostraca offer a unique view of daily life of this ancient community and Egyptian artistic production. Roughly, ostraca can be divided into two parts: those with only texts and those with figures, the so-called figurative ostraca, usually bearing designs and figures in paint. Some interesting examples will be discussed.


Satirical ostracon, KMSK BrusselProvenance: Deir el-Medina
Dimensions: H. 8 cm. W. 13.2 cm
Material: limestone
Period: New Kingdom 19th-20th Dynasty (c. 1295-1069 BC)
Current location: KMSK, Brussels
Accession number: E.6379


This ostracon was found in the vicinity of Deir el-Medina, the exact location is unknown. It was bought in 1934 by Jean Capart (1877-1947), a Belgian Egyptologist and director of the El-Kab excavations from 1937-1939 and in 1945. Capart was also curator of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, the current location of this ostracon. He had close contact to Bernard Bruyère (Institute Français d'Arcéologie Orientale), leader of the excavations at Deir el-Medina and Kings Valley, who told him about the discovery of series painted ostraca. These ostraca provide a clear insight in the live and work of the artist of the New Kingdom, in particular Dynasty 18-20. Probably, a huge part of these ostraca was sold underhand, because lots of them, including this ostracon, were offered by dealers in 1930 in Luxor and Cairo. Capart bought this fine example of figurative ostraca in 1930 in Cairo. This object is part of a large collection of figurative ostraca exhibited in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts at Brussel. Due to the financial support of British archaeological institutes, in particular the Egypt Exploration Fund, the museum's collection extended.

In general, figurative ostraca contain representations of deities, human figures, animals, architecture but could also contain miscellaneous scenes, now and then supplemented with text. Figurative ostraca are provided with several themes. This ostracon can be designated as a clear example of a figurative ostracon with a satirical theme. Satirical classification normally illustrates an unlikely combination of humans and animals in a remarkable context. Often these ostraca show fable-like situations, like this one. Probably they were linked to unknown moral tales or to the creative imagination of the artist. Animals got human characteristics or human postures which offers the illustrations a funny and more or less ridiculous appearance. This sherd carries the drawing of a fancy dressed parade of several animals of which one is making music, others try to satisfy a higher ranked figure. On the left-hand side of the ostracon a female mouse is sitting on a folding chair, which is clearly elevated. The elevation is identical to the elevations in temples meant for the statues of gods. It points out that she is the most important figure of this representation, which is supported by the fact that all the other animals seems to please her.

Behind the mouse, on the left hand edge of the stone, a jackal or fox acts like a submissive servant and hold a bended lotus-flower above her head.On the right are two foxes. The first one is provided with a huge harp with five strings. He seems to play on it. The second fox carries a vase from which arise a bouquet of flowers. One of the flowers is a lotus flower which hangs down. The animal in the middle of the ostracon is a cat. Like the other animals she seems to be of service. The cat has a mottled skin and respectfully offers the lady-like mouse a dish with probably tasty food. She attentively fans the mouse. At the top the image is framed by garlands of bindweed.

It is a harmonious,
almost intact scene, carefully worked out. The ostracon does not look like a practice piece, more as the work of an experienced artist. Perhaps it was just pastime activity.
The key players are walking on a perfect straight line and the spatial distribution seems to be in balance.
The limestone bears figures in paint, as usual. The artist has mainly used black paint for outlining the pictures, but assimilated red for the accents such as body parts, the vase, the dish and some clothes. For drawing he needed a writing brush or reed pen, made of a stem of a rush, and mineral tempera paint. In general, colours were used for creating contrast, accents, underlining.
The whole makes an absurd, but humorous impression. There were many equal representations found in Deir el-Medina. Obviously, it must have been a pleasure for the artists drawing these funny scenes which are exceptional within the strict Egyptian art. The private, daring character indicates a certain artistic freedom.

The satirical ostraca lend themselves for various interpretations. They seem to turn the world upside-down: mice dominating cats and dogs, animals with human features and human clothes. These ostraca could be representations of reverse hierarchical relationships. Maybe the artist was just joking, enjoying to make fun of authority, comparable with a modern cartoon. Another possibility is the artist used the limestone for telling a nowadays forgotten story: a fairytale or a myth. It is also not unthinkable that such attractive representation once belonged to wall paintings of the houses of the workmen. There is some evidence thanks to remaining fragments from a wall of a room in Deir el-Medina.
Either way, the people of Deir el- Medina enjoyed drawing on stones. It was their way to practice, to tell a story, to make jokes or just to decorate their houses. Probably this ostracon was one of the funniest of its class. It shows the inhabitants of Deir el-Medina had a great sense of humor, by putting daily concerns in a different, satirical light.

Local court: slander or slyness?

Ostracon 25556 CairoProvenance: Deir el-Medina, Valley of the kings
Dimensions: H.25 cm W. 36
Material: limestone
Period: end 19th Dynasty
Inscription: Hieratic
Current location: Cairo Museum
Accession number: O Cairo 25556

This is an example of a quite large, written ostracon. Unfortunately, the provenance is unclear, but given the content the Valley of the Kings seems a logical spot. The content concerns the workmen of Deir el-Medina. Written ostraca were often legal records, generally related with private disputes about economic transaction or property. They could also include (private) letters, magical spells, and religious matters. The saved social history written on these stones is invaluable when it comes to insight in daily life of Deir el-Medina.

This ostracon belongs to the Cairo ostraca collection. The content presents an example of local jurisdiction. The form of the written text on this ostracon is hieratic, a cursive form of the hieroglyphic script. The ostracon provides a complete text, written on one side with 9 lines of black ink. The smooth white lime-stones offered an ideal surface for writing. Some lines are slightly damaged, though it was possible to reconstruct the whole text. Corrections of the scribe can be seen in several lines.

Many local judgments were recorded in ostraca. So, a lot of information about crucial persons, judicial matters and final judgments are preserved.
According to the amount of written legal records law seemed important for the community of Deir el-Medina. Life was not always easy, and the inhabitants had to deal with irregularities which had to be resolved. Therefore they had a local court also known as 'kenbet'. The kenbet consisted of 'officers of the court', which were people from the village such as foremen, deputies and scribes and ordinary village members who served the court due to their seniority. Collectively the kenbet members were called 'seru'. Normally, the kenbet was a public court. Therefore, it is assumed that its sessions took place in the village when the workmen were not at work on the royal tombs. The local court was involved with disputes, contracts and sometimes serious criminal cases.

This particular otracon holds information of a dubious judicial decision. The Cairo ostracon 25556 tells a story of four persons who were brought before local court for slander against the chief workman Hay. Hay led the left side of the crew in the Valley of the kings and his colleague Paneb the right side.Paneb depicted in TT 211 The two chief workmen occur on a number of ostraca of Deir el-Medina. Some of the crew accused Hay of cursing the reigning king Seti II (c. 1204-1198 BC). He argued that three workmen and a woman, who mentioned his name and 'his people', falsely accused him for insulting the king while he was taking a break in his hut. He accidentally overheard them, prosecuted them of slander and dragged them to court. The local court was brought into action on site, which was exceptional. The court, represented by chief workman Paneb, one of the questionable characters of Deir el-Medina, asked the defenders to repeat their accusations. The four were hesitating and quarreling. At first they did not deny, but finally they admitted Hay had not said anything. They had to swear, under threat of mutilation, never to charge Hay wrongly again in the future. Beside they were punished with 100 strokes each for bearing false witness.
There are several strange facts about the proceedings. One suspects that the proceedings took place in a the neighborhood of Kings Valley which is remarkable. Normally, the village was the place to judge a case. The court was always public and in the presence of the scribes of the vizier or a policeman. Accusations related to the king, were always directly or indirectly the vizier's responsibility, and had to be reported to the Pharaoh. He was the one who passed judgment in case of lese majesty. Additionally Hay, as a chief workman, had the opportunity to punish the four troublemakers directly. Apparently that was not the way to clear himself. It seems that he deliberately got in touch with the court on a day that the officials were absent. In the hope not to attract attention, and obviously anticipating to be completely cleared of accusations, he asked Paneb to solve the problem, at some distance of the village. It seems that he had to hide something. It is not unthinkable that Paneb, who already had a bad reputation at Deir el-Medina all the same, put pressure on the prosecutors.
Hay stayed on his job for another thirty years. Concerning Paneb, several sources mention Paneb as a deceiver and unscrupulous person. He himself was linked to several crimes in the village and was removed from office later on. Obviously, the text on the ostracon had to exonerated Hay for questionable practices, but in fact it may have been a farcical trial. Hay probably had much to lose, and maybe Paneb backed him up to cover his own crimes. If this reconstruction is correct, if Hay and his colleague Paneb covered up the facts, than they deliberately violated the rules.

© Joke Baardemans 2016


Met dank aan Rob Demarée voor zijn suggestie!


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