The plural in English usage of the ancient Greek word ostracon (∘στρακ∘ν), which means “an earthen vessel, a fragment of such a vessel, a potsherd.” The Greek use of ostraca, or potsherds, in casting ballots for banishment or exile provides the basis for the derivation of the English word “ostracize.” In the specialized terminology used by Egyptologists, the words “ostracon” and “ostraca” refer not only to potsherds but also, by extension, to chips of limestone used as surfaces on which to write or draw. The employment of such materials by scribes and artists grew out of the natural desire to economize on more costly papyrus for certain forms of documentation that were considered of lesser importance. For the scribe and the artist, the substitution of broken pottery fragments or flakes of limestone was an obvious choice, since both were available in great abundance in ancient Egypt. The pottery fragments were the result of normal breakage, and the limestone fragments were a byproduct of building operations, particularly the excavation of tombs in the cliffs near Thebes. Both materials seem unlikely choices, but the usual curve of the pottery fragment does not appear to have been a hindrance to its use as a writing surface, and the limestone often flakes into regular, flat planes. Since both materials are relatively resistant to destruction, a considerable amount of documentary evidence for the history of Egypt and Egyptian art has come down to us in the form of ostraca.
The reed pen was generally employed as a writing instrument, with an ink made of carbon or lampblack and red ocher for the two principle colors of red and black. The form of writing used on ostraca was either Hieratic or Demotic Egyptian, two cursive forms of hieroglyphic script that were employed for almost all uses except formal inscriptions. Hieratic, or “priestly,” script appears as early as the Old Kingdom; it is an adaptation of hieroglyphs to the more natural forms created by the reed pen. Demotic, or “popular,” writing came into use in the Late period as a more rapidly written form of Hieratic; in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, it was the form of writing in common use. Coptic, the last developed form of the ancient Egyptian language, was written with the Greek alphabet plus seven additional characters used to express sounds not found in Greek. Texts in both Greek and Coptic appear on ostraca in later times.
Ostraca in the form of potsherds should not be confused with documents that are identified in the literature as “jar dockets.” Often a description or label of the contents of a jar was inscribed in ink on the exterior, usually on the shoulder. These can sometimes be useful for the archaeologist and historian because they may also include a date, particularly a regnal date associated with a particular ruler. These are not ostraca in the strict sense, but chance fragments of labels found on surviving parts of the original containers. Examples of jar dockets found on complete vessels include the descriptive labels on a number of wine jars discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which give information on the vineyard and the vintage year, much like modern wine labels. Even if these had been found on pottery fragments rather than on the complete vessels, they would still have been recognized as not being “ostraca” in the strict Egyptological sense of the word.
An important part of the education of student scribes was the imitation of classic literary examples. They gained skill and learned their trade by copying excerpts from texts in accepted literary styles or of acknowledged importance and traditional value. Ostraca provided a cheap, abundant, and easily accessible material for the student, and as a result, a number of literary texts, either whole or in part, have been preserved through student copies in this form. Although most of the preserved examples are excerpts, which number in the hundreds, one of the longest of these documents is an almost complete text of the Middle Kingdom Story of Sinuhe, written on a single large ostracon (now in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford). Even student exercise pieces that contain only a portion of a copied literary text can prove valuable. They may furnish alternative versions, or provide some elements or parts of a text that can be used to fill in gaps in other examples that have suffered loss or damage. This is particularly true when other surviving examples of literary texts are written on fragile papyri, always subject to deterioration and particularly to the loss of the beginning or end of a scroll.
A great deal of information and evidence for the details of daily life in ancient Egypt has come down to us in the form of ostraca. The use of ostraca for documents of various kinds is amply attested by the numerous finds of such material in several workers' villages, particularly the one at Deir el-Medina in the foothills of Western Thebes. Preserved examples from this site include correspondence, official reports, lists that detail the composition of work gangs, work schedules, pay rosters, and lists of food rations. Legal documents such as memoranda, contracts of various kinds—including marriage agreements, deeds, and wills—are also preserved in this form. Such day-to-day documentation provides invaluable evidence for a social history of the laborers, craftsmen, and supervisors who excavated and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. By extension, this “archive” of material, exhaustively preserved from one village, can be used to postulate the structure of similar societal situations.
Actual ritual or devotional objects are occasionally preserved on ostraca, particularly on larger limestone chips. These include crude dedicatory stelae, letters to the dead, and offering lists or prayers. These may not be preparatory studies or drafts for a more finished or complete object but, rather, evidence of a pious act or wish of a draftsman or other craftsman. They are finished in ink and rarely carved, and are meant to be complete in themselves.
The abundant figural ostraca found at Deir el-Medina and in the Valley of the Kings give considerable insight into the working methods of the artist-craftsmen employed in the preparation of tomb decoration. Often a single piece may have the same design element repeated several times, suggesting an attempt to perfect the rendering of a hieroglyph or part of a figure. This is particularly true of elements considered difficult to draw, such as the quail chick with its subtle contour or the owl with its frontal face, both complex hieroglyphs to capture accurately. Some drawings have a squared grid imposed on the design, indicating that they were meant to be enlarged as a part of a wall decoration. Others include some standard element, such as the open hand or closed fist, to indicate the standard measurement of a part. Still others suggest a kind of aide-mémoire for the delineation of an element that would have been repeated in a wall decoration, such as the ruler's profile, the arrangement of the signs in a cartouche, or some decorative device.
The training of the artist is presumed to have been based on a workshop and apprenticeship system. No manuals or books of instruction have been preserved, probably because it was not considered necessary to commit to writing the information that was passed on orally from master to student. Because of the relatively indestructible nature of the material, many ostraca preserve important evidence for the understanding of artistic training and methods that would otherwise be unknown to us. These include examples of trials, sketches, and practice pieces, as well as layout drawings that were meant to be expanded and duplicated on a larger scale. From an examination of a number of the figured ostraca, it can be demonstrated that the beginning draftsman studied and copied the work of a master. Annotations or corrections can be seen to have been made at times by a more experienced hand, probably in the process of teaching, just as instructors in draftsmanship have always corrected the work of students through history.
Architectural elevations and plans are not preserved in great number, but some exist on ostraca to supplement the few that have been found on papyrus. One large stone chip in the Cairo Museum bears the layout of an identifiable royal tomb. Other architectural drawings are of details, such as single columns or the façade of a shrine; in one instance, an arch with written measurements of its arc attests to the calculation involved. Some layout drawings for the ground plans of houses and gardens have also been preserved. As sketchy as some of these appear, the drawings, with occasional notations of measurement, still give some indication of the working methods of Egyptian architects and builders.
A distinct class of figural ostraca illustrates fable-like situations in which unlikely combinations of humans and animals appear in curious contexts. The cat may act as the herdsman for geese, or as nursemaid for a baby mouse, or human children may be punished by animals who conduct themselves as overseers. These so-called satirical drawings are in all probability the illustrations for moral tales, either totally lost to history or never committed to writing and transmitted by the Egyptians orally. There are also a limited number of caricatures and erotic illustrations, but these are very much in the minority, probably because they were less often preserved.
To the casual modern viewer who has experienced only the most formal of Egyptian art forms, Egyptian art may seem a static and lifeless artistic expression. The immediacy of the ancient drawings preserved on ostraca exerts a tremendous appeal on the viewer who is given, through this medium, a brief glimpse into the creative act that was a part of an otherwise highly stylized and proscribed structure. Since all forms of Egyptian art were based in linear abstraction, the insights to be gained through a study of the art of drawing are even more valuable because they provide us with many of the preparatory stages in the development of finished objects in every medium.
- Barnes, J. W. The Ashmolean Ostraca of Sinuhe. Oxford, 1952.
- Brunner-Traut, E. Egyptian Artists' Sketches: Figured Ostraca From the Gayer-Anderson Collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge, 1979.
- Carter, H. and A. H. Gardiner. “The Tomb of Ramesses IV and the Turin Plan of a Royal Tomb.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 4 (1917), 130–158.
- Černý, Jaroslav. Catalogue des ostraca hiératiques non littéraires de Deir el-Medineh. 7 vols. Cairo, 1935–1970.
- Daressy, G. Ostraca, Catalogue général des antiquites egyptiennes du musée du Caire: no. 25001–25385. Cairo, 1901.
- Peck, W. H. Drawings from Ancient Egypt. London, 1978.
- Posener, G. Catalogue des ostraca hiératiques littéraires de Deir el-Medineh. Cairo, 1972.
- Vandier d'Abbadie, J. Catalogue des ostraca figurés de Deir el-Medineh. 4 vols. Cairo, 1937–1946.
William H. Peck