Ostracon of a Prayer

This ostracon is depicting a scribe as a prayer, drawing on a piece of limestone. The ancient Egyptians drew on ostraca for a variety of reasons; for example, while planning work on tombs or as exercises.

Ostraca are simple splinters of limestone or shards of pottery, on which the ancient Egyptians wrote or drew. This type of support was used because it was plentiful and of no material value, unlike papyrus, which was much more expensive.

Ostracon of a Prayer
Ostracon of a Prayer

Ostracon, the Greek term for potsherd, is used by Egyptologists to refer to sherds of pottery or limestone flakes, which were used as a cheap and readily available material on which write or draw. The text and drawings often consist of letters, bills, personal notes, inventories, sketches and scribal exercises, but also of literary texts, like love poems and wisdom texts.

“… Ancient Egyptian ostraca display a wealth of written and pictorial information, the range of which by far exceeds that of papyri, and even that of monuments. It is necessary to emphasize from the start that Pharaonic ostraca are not merely a textual genre.

The types of text and image on pottery and stone fragments are many (especially in the case of New Kingdom ostraca from Thebes), and sometimes difficult to classify. Indeed, the range of textual and pictorial modes used on these fragments makes it difficult even to define the very notion of ‘ostracon’.

Dictionaries define ostraca as inscribed potsherds, sometimes mentioning their specific use in the ancient Greek voting procedure called ostracism. Such definitions imply that ostraca were always textual, and that the texts were of a casual nature or of short-term importance only.

But in Ancient Egypt, pottery and limestone fragments were often inscribed or decorated for long-term use: well-documented examples include legal records with additional entries made months after their initial text was written…, excerpts from literary texts on large chunks of limestone deposited in tombs as burial gifts…, and miniature stelae, sometimes crudely made, and kept as votive monuments in houses and huts…

These very different objects are all commonly classified as ostraca by Egyptologists, and published together in catalogues, although usually subdivided by genre: textual and pictorial ostraca tend to be in separate publications, and textual ostraca are further subdivided into hieroglyphic, hieratic and Demotic (and Aramaic, Greek, etc.).”

The Survival of Pharaonic Ostraca: Coincidence or Meaningful Patterns’ by Ben Haring in Caputo, Clementina and Julia Lougovaya (Editors), Using Ostraca in the Ancient World: New Discoveries and Methodologies, Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin, Germany, 2021

New Kingdom, 20th Dynasty, ca. 1189-1077 BC. Probably from Deir el-Medina. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 25029

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