Turin Museum
ostraka
back to Turin
Sources:
1. Curto, Silvio : La satira nell'antico Egitto / Silvio Curto
Torino : Museo egizio ,[1968?]
2. The Pharaohs / edited by Christiane Ziegler
New York : Rizzoli, 2002.
3, Bienkowski, Piotr : Gifts of the Nile : Ancient Egyptian arts and crafts in Liverpool Museum
London : HMSO, 1995.
4. Brunner, Emma : Egyptian artists' sketches : figured ostraka from the Gayer-Anderson collection in the
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Leiden : Netherlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut le Istanbul, 1979.
5. Wilkinson, R. H. : The complete gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt.
London : Thames & Hudson, 2003.
King crushing an enemy
From Deir el-Medina
Schiaparelli excavations, 1905
Limestone with black ink drawing
20th dynasty
One of the most typical royal scenes is reproduced on
this ostrakon : the king in the act of crushing the
defeated enemy. The scene was widely used on pylons
and external walls of temples. On this piece the king is
shown upright, his head adorned with red crown topped
by the two feathers and the ram's horn; leaning
forward, he grasps the tightly bound arms of a kneeling
Nubian captive with both hands. The prisoner's ethnic
group is identified by the typical garb with large
festooned neckpiece and by his short curly hair. In front
of the king there are two cartouches containing the
king's name over a short line of text:
"The Lord of the
Two Lands, Usermaatre Meryamun, the Lord of the Two
Lands, Ramesses, the one who crushes the foreign lands."
(The Pharaohs, 2002, p. 426).
Height: 31 cm
Width: 33 cm
Suppl. 6279
Ostrakon dedicated to Meretseger
From Deir el-Medina
19th dynasty
Limestone
Meretseger in the form of a coiled serpent in
front of an offering table
Height: 12 cm
Length: 17 cm
From Drovetti's collection
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.

The majority of the ostraka in the Turin collection are images of figures, but many do carry text. The
material is mostly limestone although there are also several terracotta shreds.

The ostraka below are drawn in black and/or red ink, but yellow and grey pigments also appear.
The Turin collection also contains examples of figures carved in relief - products of sculpture rather than
of drawing. The collection of pieces from Deir el-Medina originate from Schiaparelli's excavations. The
ostrakon of the king's head formed Drovetti's collection. They are dated on the evidence of stylistic
criteria or names present in inscriptions. They can be assigned to the 18th-20th dynasties. 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 these ostraka vary from gods and royal
personages to ordinary men and women along with animals represented by mammals, birds and reptiles and
even architectural elements and individual hieroglyphs.

Some ostraka were clearly the practise pieces of pupils, whose work was corrected by their teachers,
allowing us to learn something of 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 being original
works of art. As freedom is allowed to the artist, these glimpses illustrate fascinating aspects of the
ancient Egyptian culture and life.

The instruments and materials used for ostraka painting were the same as those used for large wall
paintings: mineral based pigments, ink, water. The writing brushes were made from the stem of a rush,
the ends of which were cut and chewed to break up the fibres, and the palette was usually a rectangular
piece of wood with two cavities for holding inks in the form of solid cakes. Black ink was made of carbon,
probably burnt deposit from lamps, and red ink of red ochre.  

All photographs of the objects from the museum's collections are © of Museo Egizio di Torino.
Hymn to the Nile
Hieratic ostrakon
20th dynasty, about 1186-1069 BC
From Deir el-Medina
Limestone
Height: 11.5 cm
Length: 11.5 cm
From Schiaparelli's 1905 excavations
Inv. 57064
Ostrakon of a woman acrobat dancer
From Deir el-Medina (?)
Limestone
Ostrakon depicting a dancer in an acrobatic
position. The bare-breasted female is wearing a
short black skirt and circular earrings of gold.
The artistic quality of the design is exceptional
and is erotically charged. Female dancers can be
seen depicted not only on tomb walls but also on
temple walls.
Ostrakon of a king's head
19th dynasty
Limestone
Carved sunk relief of the head of
pharaoh Seti I in profile.
Length: 31 cm
Width: 24 cm
Former Drovetti collection
Cat. 7051
Ostrakon dedicated to Meretseger by
Amen-Khau
From Deir el-Medina
19th dynasty
Limestone
Dimensions: 11 x 23 x 2,5 cm
Meretseger in the form of a coiled
serpent with a human head faces to the
left. She is placed in front of the table
piled with three round loaves of bread and
a vessel, topped with a bouquet of lotus
flowers. Another lotus flower appears
above the serpent. There are traces of
yellow pigment on the loaves and the coils
and the crown of the serpent.
Pharaoh in the form of a sphinx
Limestone with black ink drawing
New Kingdom, 19th-20th dynasty,
1292-1070 B.C.
The theme of the fighting pharaoh, in
human form or as a sphinx, is typical of
the ancient Egyptian art.
The name of Amun-Ra
The hieroglyphic signs have been
outlined on a broken piece of vase
From Deir-el-Medina
Terracotta
Black and red ink
New Kingdom, 19th-20th dynasty,
1292-1070 B.C.
Food rations
The texts give accounts of the
food rations distributed to the
workers of Deir-el-Medina.
From the Theban area
New Kingdom, 19th-20th dynasty,
1292-1070 B.C.
Depiction of a captive
Limestone
From Deir-el-Medina
19th-20th dynasty
In ancient Egyptian art, enemies, either
Asian or African, can be distinguished by
their features. The captive is depicted in a
kneeling subdued position.
Receipt from a sale
The chief of guards Nebsemen sells to
Hay an ox worth 120 deben in exchange
for two jars of fresh fat, five tunics, a
kilt and a skin.
Terracotta
From Deir el-Medina
19th-20th dynasty, 1292-1070 B.C.
Ostrakon of a cat
Limestone
Black ink
From Deir-el-Medina
19th-20th dynasty, 1292-1070
B.C.The cat's left paw is raised.
Ostrakon of a herdsman driving an ox
Limestone.
From Deir-el-Medina
19th-20th dynasty, 1292-1070 B.C.
Ostrakon of the god Amun
From Deir-el-Medina
19th-20th dynasty, 1292-1070 B.C.
The god Amun in the form of a ram, is
shown sitting before an offering table
surmounted by lotus-flowers.
Ostrakon of a bull
From Deir-el-Medina
Limestone
19th-20th dynasty, 1292-1070 B.C.
Ostrakon showing the hindquarters of a ram
From Deir-el-Medina
Limestone
Red pigment
19th-20th dynasty, 1292-1070 B.C.
The text carries the name of the creator of
the design, the Servant in the Place of
Truth Iierniwtef.
Royal figure
Prince Setherkhepeshef, son of Ramesses III
is depicted on this limestone ostrakon.
Limestone
From the Valley of the Queens
Red ink
New Kingdom, 20th dynasty, 1186-1070 B.C.
Artist's rough model
Limestone
Red and black pigment
From the Valley of the Queens
New Kingdom, 20th dynasty, 1186-1070 B.C.
A female profile of a deity, surmounted by a
baboon, the representation of the god Thoth.
Architectural feature
Illustrated ostrakon that depicts the
lower part of a papyrus shaped column
in red ink.
Limestone
From Deir-el-Medina
19th-20th dynasty, 1292-1070 B.C.
The ostrakon below reproduced a portion of the Hymn to the Nile, literary composition popular in the
New Kingdom. It survived in numerous copies. Its original date probably goes back to the Middle
Kingdom. This text was taught as a classic in scribal schools. The Hymn extols the god Hapy as a
bringer of fertility and may have been recited at the time of the inundation.
Hieratic ostraka
Bes
From Deir el-Medina
Limestone
Red ink
The head is depicted from the front in
two-dimensional representations. His mask-like and
bearded features frame large staring eyes. Bes was
deemed beneficent to humans and he was accepted
by all classes of Egyptians as a powerful apotropaic
deity. He was especially associated with the
protection of children and of pregnant women and
those giving birth. The image on this ostrakon might
have had protective purposes.
Photographed by Hans Ollermann, 2008:
A religious ceremony
Limestone
A Mouse-god is being carried in procession by four
jackal-priests to a chapel-shrine while other
jackal-priests are burning incense and reciting the
ritual. Facing the procession is another
mouse-priest holds a tablet with a written ritual.
The figures are outlined in red, the bodies are
executed in red and black, the skirts of the
priests are white.
Fragment of an ostrakon
Limestone
From Deir el-Medina
A cat leads a goose to pasture. This scene illustrates
the "topsy-turvy-world".
Figures are outlined in black.
Width: 7 cm
(N. Suppl. 6286)
A mouse and a cat
A mouse in a long pleated skirt, sits on a
folding stool smelling a lotus flower. Before
the sitting mouse there is a table full of
offerings. A cat stands at the other side of
the table and shakes a palm leaf as a fan to
cool the mouse down.
Black, red and green pigment
Width: 10 cm
(N. Suppl. 6296)
Figured ostraka
Animal scenes

Animal scenes are found especially on ostraka, but they are also known from three satirical papyri. Their
themes cover a broad field: fighting, worship, music, dance, courts of justice, the arbour, checker and ball
games, the brewing of beer, gardening, herding and other physical labour.
The war of the mice against the cats is a subject that is extraordinarily richly documented on the
satirical ostraka. The cats serve the mice as slaves, provide them with their food and drink, offer them
flowers, fan cool air to the Mouse-Dames, do their hair or carry their young in their shawls. In others
scenes monkeys, crocodiles, foxes, lions and gazelles appear as musicians and singers
(Brunner,1979,11-12).
Social criticism might be hinted at in some scenes (jackals carrying an animal god in procession below).
However, most of the themes are probably illustrations of fables which have epic themes. Others may
represent scenes from ancient fairy tales and animal fables. They could also represent humorous sketches,
jokes or proverbs (Brunner,1979,14).
Some ostraka motives have been identified as sketches for wall paintings. A small fragment with a motif
of the delivery room, recovered from the base of a wall in a private house at Deir el-Medina, suggests
that the walls were decorated with motives found on these ostraka. The walls of tombs and temples were
not the place for intimate and comic subjects, but the secular buildings that are almost entirely lost, can
be assumed to have contained these animal murals (Brunner,1979,17-18).
The limestone ostraka below are attributed to the Ramesside Deir el-Medina.
Photographed by Su Bayfield, 2008:
Depiction of a foreigner
Limestone
Black ink
The upper torso of a male with the
head in profile. He has got curly
hair and might represent a Nubian.
The text on this page was written using the sources below by Lenka Peacock, from the UK.
The photographs were taken by Su Bayfield, UK and Hans Ollermann, The Netherlands.
Photography © of Museo Egizio di Torino.
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The page was last modified on August 12th 2012
Counter
In front and above the head of the snake three are columns of hieroglyphic inscription "that the king
makes an offering to Meretseger, Mistress of the West", below, a line of hieroglyphics, "done by
Sedjem-mu. Sedjem the team," Amen-khau , justified. "