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Doodles, debris or dedications? : ostraca from Deir el-Medina

Joanne Backhouse, a PhD Egyptology student at The University of Liverpool,
will give a talk at the Atkinson Art Gallery in Southport
on Thursday the 9th of July 2015 at 7:00 pm

Drawn by the Pharaoh’s artisans, skillful and lively images provide a unique insight into the mind set of
ancient craftsmen. In this talk ostraka featuring scenes of every day domestic life will be discussed.

The lecture is given in association with the Friends of The Atkinson Art Gallery.
The talk is £5 and tickets can be purchased on the night. (Free for Members, Founder Patrons and
Friends on The Atkinson Art Gallery).

To find out more about the event and the venue, go to
http://www.theatkinson.co.uk/events/doodles-debris-or-dedications-ostraca-from-deir-el-medina/

The Atkinson is Southport’s new home for music, theatre, art, poetry, literature and history, located in
the middle of Lord Street in Southport and just a short walk from Southport train station. Significant
investment has been made in refurbishing the stunning 19th century buildings, to create a welcoming multi
art form venue with a strong contemporary feel.  In October 2014 a new Egyptology Gallery opened. It
provides the new home of the Goodison Egyptology Collection, not seen for over 40 years.
http://www.theatkinson.co.uk/whats-on/museum/egyptology/
Ostrakon, the Greek term for potsherd, is
used by Egyptologists to refer to sherds of
pottery or smooth limestone flakes, which were
used for less formal purposes than papyri. They
were a cheap and readily available material on
which it was possible to write and/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. Ostraka are
distinguished into 2 categories: hieratic
ostraka, containing inscriptions written in
hieratic script, and figured ostraka, containing
drawings and sketches often accompanied by
short hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Ostraka collections mostly consist of drawings in black, or in black and red mineral based pigments. The
drawings are usually executed on small pieces of limestone or terracotta sherds. They illustrate every
stage from an apprentice's first attempts to the most elaborate draughtsmanship. Some ostraka show
the underlying sketch in red ink. Themes of the ostraka vary from gods and royal personages to
ordinary men and women, animals represented by mammals, birds, insect and reptiles and even
architectural and furniture elements, boats and individual hieroglyphs.
Some ostraka were clearly the practise pieces of pupils, whose work was subsequently corrected by
their teachers. These pieces allow us to learn their techniques. Some ostraka were products of the
moment and often bear themes and motives that do not appear in official art. They are unique
treasures of original works of art. As freedom is allowed to the artist, these glimpses illustrate
fascinating aspects of the ancient Egyptian culture and life.
The places of origin of some ostraka collections scattered in various museums are still to be researched.
Although most of the ostraka come from Thebes, sometimes the exact place and dates of acquisition
were not recorded and still remain to be established. The fact, that most of them are just drawings
lacking inscriptions, means that it is more difficult to establish their place of origin, than it is for the
hieratic ostraka, where the names of people involved in transactions are recorded and might be known to
us from other sources. But most figured ostraka are probably from Thebes, specifically from Deir
el-Medina, or from places, where the Deir el-Medina artisans worked. Possible future analysis and
study of the limestone structure could help in locating more accurately their places of origin.
The fact, that authenticity of some of the figured ostraka in the museums around the world is
debatable and some of the pieces could be modern forgeries, has been recognised and written about.
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This page was created on May 1st 2015
© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL
Photography by Lenka Peacock