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Ancient Egyptian Ostraca: A Reevaluation

Although I am an Egyptologist, I recently worked for two years in the Museum's Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art as the 2009–2011 Hagop Kevorkian Curatorial Fellow. The experience was invaluable, not only for its curatorial training, but also for the opportunity to approach my dissertation topic—ancient Egyptian ostraca—from a cross-disciplinary perspective.

Ostraca are flakes of limestone that were used as "notepads" for private letters, laundry lists, records of purchases, and copies of literary works. My research focused specifically on the "figured," or illustrated, ostraca that some Egyptologists interpret as visual parodies of Egyptian social hierarchy.1 These images portray animals acting as humans, as well as "topsy-turvy worlds" in which everything is the reverse of how it occurs in nature.


Ostracon, New Kingdom, Ramesside, Dynasty 19–20, ca. 1295–1070 B.C. Egypt. Limestone, paint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift, 1960 (60.158)

For example, in the upper register of an ostracon from the Met's collection (shown above), a seated monkey is depicted interacting with a bipedal cat—an indication that these animals are to be understood as having human characteristics. Other ostraca of this type portray anthropomorphized animals in different but equally nonsencial roles, such as mice being waited on by their cat servants. These types of figured ostraca are all approximately palm sized, and typically depict a single image or event without any accompanying text. Many were found in or are believed to be from Deir el-Medina,2 a New Kingdom (1150–1070 B.C.) village that housed the draughtsmen, carvers, and painters for the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.

Imagery of animals acting as humans is prevalent in ancient Near Eastern art as well, particularly during the Proto-Elamite period (3200–2700 B.C.). At first glance, however, it seems that these types of images in the Near East occupied a more elite sphere than those from ancient Egypt. For instance, there is a silver statuette of a kneeling bull offering a vessel in the Met's collection that demonstrates a masterful blend of human and animal traits, and careful articulation of textile pattern. The bull's material and high level of craftsmanship suggests that it was officially commissioned.

Kneeling bull holding a spouted vessel

Kneeling bull holding a spouted vessel, ca. 3100–2900 B.C. Proto-Elamite, Southwestern Iran. Silver. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1966 (66.173)

Depictions of animal musicians and banqueters are featured prominently in other Near Eastern elite contexts, such as in the decorated front panel of the Lyre of Ur, which was found in the Royal Cemetery by Leonard Woolley.

In contrast to the highly crafted, elite Near Eastern examples, ancient Egyptian ostraca were made from a material that was easily found in and around Deir el-Medina. Furthermore, the illustrated ostraca, along with the ostraca that were used as notepads and laundry lists, were discovered in dumps around the village.3 Because the figured ostraca seem to be accessible, disposable, and depicting unofficially commissioned and possibly satirical imagery, contemporary art historians and Egyptologists have sometimes dismissed the illustrations on them as having lower artistic value than, for instance, the tomb paintings found in the Valley of the Kings or the silver bull statuette in the Met's collection.4 As I began my research, accepting the argument that the ostraca's disposability and accessibility made them less valuable to the Egyptians, I still wondered why the contexts for imagery involving animals acting as humans seemed to be drastically different between ancient Egypt and the Near East.

During my time in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, I was introduced to the scholarship of Irene Winter and Zainab Bahrani, specialists investigating issues surrounding Mesopotamian aesthetics and representational systems. In their respective studies, Winter and Bahrani note that the standards by which we judge art in a modern, western setting are not necessarily applicable to the evaluation of images and objects from other cultures and time periods.5 Applying this theoretical framework to my research, I have reevaluated how our current values may have caused art historians to overlook or misunderstand aesthetics of ancient Egypt, specifically.

I began to realize that the lower status often ascribed to figured ostraca fails to address certain issues. For example, if one assumes that the artisans and craftsmen from Deir el-Medina illustrated these ostraca—which many Egyptologists do—then it is important to keep in mind that they also had exposure to Egyptian elite art and culture as well as the requisite skill level to produce elite art, since artisans from Deir el-Medina were responsible for the design and decoration of the royal tombs. In fact, many of the ostraca's illustrations are derived from artistic themes seen in elite, officially commissioned art found in tombs and temples, such as banqueting, hunting, and chariot scenes involved in formal processionals and battles, making one wonder how "nonelite" the ostraca imagery really is.

Figures and scenes similar to those depicted on the ostraca are found on contemporaneous satirical and erotic papyri that are also believed to be from Deir el-Medina. Papyrus was an elite material in ancient Egypt, which might suggest that the imagery itself was not necessarily an example of "lowbrow" culture. While one could argue that the figured ostraca served as artistic drafts for the illustrated papyri, which would reinforce their designation as low-status objects,6 I would counter that it is possible and likely that they had an independent purpose.

Egyptologists rarely consider the figured ostraca as objects that might form an assemblage of images, or even a narrative, despite their strong iconographical relationship to satirical and erotic papyri. The papyri use some of the same types of images in vignettes placed side by side in what may form illustrated assemblages.7 The sometimes close similarity between the vignettes on the papyri and the drawn images on the ostraca suggests the possibility that a specific visual assemblage was intended, or that the ostraca might have been laid out in a particular order.8

It has been speculated that the papyri refer to folktale narratives that do not survive in written form. At least one Egyptologist, Emma Brunner-Traut, has noted that literary texts suggest that storytellers made sketches on ostraca during story recitals.9 Interestingly, it has been argued that the images of animals acting like humans in the ancient Near East may also be derived from oral folklore. While none of these animal fables have survived in the Near East in written form, there are some that are preserved in ancient Egyptian literary papyri, such as the Legend of Tefnut.10 There is one ostracon from the Agyptisches Museum in Berlin that may be linked to a part of the Tefnut legend, in which the goddess Tefnut runs away from Egypt in the form of a cat, while the god Thoth, who is transformed into a baboon, is sent to bring her back home.11 It has been speculated that the Berlin ostracon depicts the moment when Thoth, in the form of a baboon, is telling Tefnut, who is in cat form, the fable of the bird and the cat who exchange oaths that neither would take advantage of the other's absence to harm their young. Above the illustration of the baboon and the cat is a depiction of a bird spreading its wings above a nest of eggs, which may be a vignette representing the story that is being told within the Legend of Tefnut.

If the Berlin ostracon is indeed portraying a scene from ancient Egyptian literature, perhaps there are others that are doing the same. It seems that the figured ostraca that I focused on during my research have a strong narrative potential. Due to the often fragmentary nature of ancient Egyptian literature, perhaps Egyptologists are not as familiar with this set of iconography, and there is the possibility that the ostraca may be illustrations of stories passed down orally. Because the figured ostraca may have been used as storytelling devices, I believe that the Egyptians may have valued them as independent and interdependent images and objects, rather than seeing them as disposable byproducts of another medium, such as papyrus. Moreover, it should be noted that many of the figured ostraca feature well-executed drawings that are carefully rendered and sometimes colored. For this and the other reasons I have outlined above, I think it would be inaccurate to dismiss figured ostraca as having little worth to the ancient Egyptians. Indeed, the ostraca are a crucial reminder for us to be aware that our perception of what constitutes artistic or aesthetic worth may be different from that of the ancient world, or any other foreign or historically distant culture.

[1] For instance, see Houlihan, P. Wit and Humour in Ancient Egypt. (London: Rubicon, 2001) and Brunner-Traut. E. Altägyptische tiergeschichte und fable: Gestalt und Strahlkraft. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft: 1968) and Meskell, L. "Sketching Lifeworlds, Performing Resistance," Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt. (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2004), pp. 154–157

[2] Meskell, L., p. 148

[3] Lesko, Leonard H. Pharaoh's Workers: The Villagers of Deir El Medina. (New York: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 27

[4] See Pomerantseva, N. "The Sketches on Ostraca or 'The sheets of sketch-book' of Ancient Egyptian Masters." Sesto Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia. 1 (1992), pp. 513–520 and Houlihan, P. Wit and Humour in Ancient Egypt. (London: Rubicon, 2001), p. 61, 63

[5] I would recommend reading Bahrani, Z. The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria (Philadelphia: University of Pennyslania Press, 2003) and Winter, I. "Aesthetics in Ancient Mesopotamian Art" in Jack M. Sasson, ed., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. (Charles Scribner's Sons, Michigan, 1995), pp. 2569–2582

[6] Houlihan, P., p. 73.

[7] Flores, D. "The Topsy-Turvy World." Egypt, Israel, and the Ancient Mediterranean World: Studies in Honor of Donald B. Redford. (Boston: Brill, 2004), pp. 232–255

[8] It is unclear as to whether the papyrus represents a narrative, though Meskell provides one possible reading for the satirical papyrus in the British Museum. See Meskell, p. 169

[9] Brunner-Traut, E. Egyptian Artists' Sketches: Figured Ostraka from the Gayer-Anderson Collection in the Fitzwilliam Museum (Leiden Nederlands Insituut voor he Nabje Oosten, 1979), p. 9

[10] See Spiegelberg, W. Der ägyptische Mythus vom Sonnenauge : nach dem Leidener demotischen Papyrus I. 384. (Hildesheim; New York : G. Olms, 1994).

[11] Flores, D., p. 251.

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