Ruiz, A – Daily Life in
Ancient Egypt, 2001, Souvenir Press

Wardyn, K, Satirical Imagery
of the Ramesside Period: A Sociohistorical Narrative, 2016, Journal of Undergraduate
Research at Minnesota State University, Mankato

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James T G H, Pharaoh’s People
– Scenes from Life in Imperial Egypt, 2007, TPP

SOURCES

 

 

It
is important to recognise that whilst the wide number and variety of the thousands
of ostraca has given us an extensive and detailed glimpse into the lives of the
workers at Deir el Medina, we must remember that in the 3,000 year history of
ancient Egypt, the ostraca we are reviewing were created over a period of only
300 years.  They are also very limited
geographically to this small village of only 70 houses, purpose built for a very
specialist task (construction of the royal tombs). 

The
large volume of casual writings and drawings, in both hieratic and hieroglyphic
demonstrate the high levels of literacy amongst this village.  It is likely that all of the men could at
least read and write in hieratic.  We are
not sure if any of the women were literate, and have certainly found no
evidence for it so far. 

These
satirical ostraca also embodied the emergence of a new genre in literature of
the time, moving away from formal and controlled imagery to more playful and
irreverent images, expressing uncensored and private views, rather than
‘official’ views of the governing class.

Evidently
the people that created these ostraca had leisure time and therefore a degree
of prosperity, undoubtedly enabled by the state sponsored accommodation and relatively
generous rations that they received for their labours.  However, not everything was satisfactory, as
we have seen from the ostraca, and the ‘Villagers’ were educated enough to be
in a position to question the regime.

 

These
images are interesting not only because of the humour that they convey, but
also because they can give an insight into the social and political climate
during the Ramesside period (1295-1070 BCE), where there was evidence of
instability and de-centralisation.  Deir
el Medina was the scene of the first workers’ strike, due to problems with the
corrupt distribution of rations by state officials.  All 60 workers from Deir el Medina joined
together to down tools and camp outside the Valley of the Kings in
protest.  Unrest grew and grew during the
Ramesside period, and eventually the Nineteenth Dynasty collapsed at the end of
the reign of female Pharaoh Tausret. 

This ostracon shows a stick wielding cat,
standing on its hind legs like a human, herding and protecting a flock of six
geese, depicted in two registers.   There
is a birds’ next full of eggs above the nest. 
The cat also has a nap sack on its shoulder.  The cat is presented in a personified
fashion, smiling as he performs his task, whilst the birds are simply animals
with no expression at all.  This image is
reminiscent of the geese census in Nebamun’s tomb.  The illustration is simple in style with line
drawings and a limited colour palette, but is very skilfully drawn showing
great skill on the part of the artist.

­­­­­­___________________________________________________________________

Present location

EGYPTIAN
MUSEUM 01/001 CAIRO EM

Inventory number

JE
63801

Dating

18TH DYNASTY

Archaeological Site

DEIR EL-MEDINAH

Category

OSTRACON

Material

LIMESTONE

Technique

STONE-TECHNIQUE;
DRAWING; PAINTED

Width

11
cm

CAIRO
MUSEUM

OBJECT
2

 

One of the most
elaborate cat and mouse pictures is in housed in the Turin Egyptian Museum, on
a piece of papyrus, depicting a detailed battle scene. A King Mouse is shown
riding in a chariot, followed by his mouse army holding weapons and attacking a
fortress which is occupied by angry cats.

There are many illustrations
including what look like illustrations for children’s
stories. One ostracon shows a lady mouse with a mouse servant tending her hair
with other cat servants presenting food and drink. Other images show jugglers,
battle scenes and official mice metering our punishments to errant cats.

The majority of
‘cat and mice’ ostraca were created during the New Kingdom at Deir el-Medina.
This village was exceptional in terms of the level of literacy, and probably
does not represent the skills of the majority of the Egyptian population. 

A common theme amongst these
artefacts is the cat and mouse/rat theme, where typical roles are
reversed.  There are many examples and
amusing scenes along this theme, including the ostracon here showing a cat
herding geese. This scene could be interpreted as a satire on the life of the
privileged few, or it may relate to the popular fable of the time, where the
roles of cats and mice were reversed.”  Images such as these could have been
illustrations of popular fables of the time. 

As the majority of our
exposure to Egyptian beliefs is through the tombs of the wealthy upper classes,
it is easy to assume that Egyptians were very formal, and did not possess a
sense of humour.  However, if someone
from the future were looking at our own contemporary gravestones and memorials,
they may well think the same.  The
discovery of the large numbers of ostraca have given enormous insight into the
lives of the people that lived in Deir el Medina.  They certainly had a sense of humour, with
many of the ostraca containing visual jokes, cartoons and fables.

One of the most
elaborate cat and mouse pictures is housed in the Turin Egyptian Museum, on a
piece of papyrus, depicting a detailed battle scene. A King Mouse is shown
riding in a chariot, followed by his mouse army holding weapons and attacking a
fortress which is occupied by angry cats.

This ostracon shows a tabby
cat offering a goose to his master, whilst at the same time fanning him to keep
him cool.  The master has already enjoyed
a fish, and is returning the fish bone to his servant cat.  The mouse is depicted wearing fine clothes
and seated on an expensive wooden stool, showing wealth and superiority.

The majority of
‘cat and mice’ ostraca were created during the New Kingdom at Deir el-Medina.
This village was exceptional in terms of the level of literacy (up to 40% of
the population, as opposed to the more typical 1%), and probably does not
represent the skills of the majority of the Egyptian population.  These drawings were almost certainly made by
the same craftsmen who designed and painted the royal tombs.

A common theme amongst these
artefacts is the cat and mouse/rat theme, where typical roles between the
hunter and the hunted are reversed, or where animals are personified/placed in
the role of humans.  There are many
examples of amusing or satirical scenes along this theme, including the
ostracon here showing a cat fanning and feeding a mouse, above.  Images such as these could well have been
illustrations of popular fables of the time. 

As the
majority of our exposure to Egyptian beliefs is through the tombs of the
wealthy upper classes, it is easy to assume that Egyptians were very formal,
and did not possess a sense of humour. 
However, if someone from the future were looking at our own contemporary
gravestones and memorials, they may well draw the same conclusions.  The discovery of these large numbers of
ostraca have given enormous insight into the lives of the people that lived in
Deir el Medina.  They certainly had a
sense of humour and appreciated satire, with many of the ostraca containing
visual jokes, cartoons and fables.

Figured Ostracon Showing a Cat
Waiting on a Mouse
Limestone,pigment, 3 1/2 x 6 13/16 x 7/16 in. (8.9 x 17.3 x 1.1 cm)
New Kingdom, XIX Dynasty-XX Dynasty, ca. 1295-1070 B.C.E.
From Thebes, Egypt
Brooklyn #37.51E, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund

OBJECT
1

310

The ostraca contain a wide
variety of writing and illustrations, from love letters, legal documents,
practice pieces and cartoons to laundry lists. 
Most of the information we see from ancient Egypt is carved or painted
in tombs, on stelae or statues, and is ‘edited’ to convey a desired formal message.  Ostraca were more like notes, and were not
designed to be seen in memoriam. They therefore give is a ‘behind the scenes’
insight into real lives in the village.

Amongst the items discarded
were tens of thousands of ‘ostraca’. 
Ostraca are pieces of broken pottery and flakes of limestone which have
been used as we would use paper now.  As
these items have been preserved in the ground, and not decayed, they give us an
exciting insight into the lives of the Egyptians living and working in Deir El
Medina 3,000 years ago.

Deir El Medina was situated a
long way from water, and special carriers (people and donkeys) brought up water
by hand from the Nile.  This was time
consuming and laborious.  The villagers
therefore tried to build a well.  Although
they dug a pit that was 50 meters deep and 30 meters wide, they still did not
find water.  The well was subsequently
used as a rubbish dump, and this is very fortuitous for modern Egyptologists,
as we have found an unprecedented source of artefacts which were discarded 3
millennia ago. 

Around 3,000 years ago, on the
west bank of Thebes, there was a special village called Deir El Medina, which
was built to provide a home for the craftsmen and their families who were
building the tombs of the great Pharaohs, queens, princes and princesses of the
New Kingdom.  This village was different
to other villages in many ways.  It was
purpose built to a carefully considered plan, with well appointed uniform
houses providing relatively comfortable accommodation to support this important
workforce. 

INTRODUCTION

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