Hieratic Ostraka at the Petrie Museum

The Petrie Museum houses a collection of nearly 50 hieratic ostraka, collected by Flinders 
Petrie. Most of the ostraka come from Thebes, though the exact place and dates of acquisition 
still remain to be established. Although the written passages are mostly short, their contents 
indicate, that the majority of Petrie hieratic ostraka did originate in the Theban area – either 
in Deir el-Medina itself or in places where the Deir el-Medina workforce were active, e.g. the 
Valley of the Kings. Majority of hieratic ostraka are small pieces of limestone, with black and 
red writing in hieratic script. Smaller proportion of the ostraka are pottery sherds. The 
contrast for writing in red is less clear, but the background is still effective for writing in 
black. The range of content divides the ostraka into several categories

  • documentary (donkey hire and return, lists of 
    objects, records of business deals)
  • teaching (word lists)
  • legal (donkey hire dispute)
  • literary (tales, moralizing compositions)
  • religious (plea to Amun for help)
  • letters (requests)
  • incantations (spells)


Hieratic ostrakon
From Deir el-Medina
Dynasty 20, 1186-1069 BC
Length: 23 cm
Width: 16 cm

Charity after a divorce
The workman Hesysunebef divorced his wife Hel in year 2 of 
Setnakhte (1185-1182 BC). For three following years, the author 
of the text below supported Hel with a small monthly ration of 
grain. The quantity, roughly equivalent to 19 litres, would not be 
enough to live on, but he did also buy a sash ( a piece of clothing), 
that used to belong to her, for six times its value.
The ostrakon throws light on how a divorced woman might survive on 
the charity of others.


Year 2, third month of summer, day 
24, of King 
(Sethnakhte), l.p.h.: (day) 
Hesy-su-neb-ef divorced the lady Hel.
I spent three years giving to her an 
oipe of emmer every single month, 
making 9 sacks.
And she gave me a sash, saying, “Offer 
it at the riverbank (the market-place); 
it will be bought from me for an oipe of 
emmer”. I offered it, but people 
rejected it, saying, “It is bad!” And I 
told her exactly that, saying, “It has 
been rejected”. Then she gave it to 
me, and I had one sack of emmer 
delivered to her via Khay son of 
What was given to her via 
Nebu-em-weskhet (fem.) : 1 oipe.
What was given to her via 
Ta-a’ot-merut, her daughter: 1 oipe.
Total, 1 1/2 sacks for the sash.

(McDowell, A.G.: Village life in ancient 
Egypt : laundry lists and love songs,
p. 43-44)

The lives of Hesysunebef and Hel are well 
documented. He began his life as a slave, but was 
adopted by his master and became a member of 
the crew of workmen. Eventually he attained the 
rank of deputy. He named his son and his 
daughter after his adoptive parents, and 
dedicated a stela to his father. His wife Hel is 
known to us from Papyrus Salt 124. She lived 
with Pendua before she married Hesysunebef. She 
deceived both husbands with the notorious Paneb. 
It could have been the reason for the divorce 
from Hesysunebef, especially since Paneb had also 
threatened to kill Hesysunebef’s father.

From Deir el-Medina
Hieratic ostrakon
Supply of yarn for lamp wicks.
Translation : 
Year 29, month 2 of spring, day 9; on this day, distribution of the linen fibre
to the crew to make into lamp(wick)s; head of distribution[…] on this day: the three
leaders, 24 rings each total: 81the forty men, 9 ½ rings each, total 380 (but) Khons 26,
total: 74 for the linen store, 31 rings to be taken out on the (account of) the right side for
filling the scales 9 ½ (= for measuring each 9 ½?) 225 rings note of what fell to ground 21
rings Sum total: 516 rings[..] year 30, month 1 of flood, day 25; this day handing over the
lamps beside the Amenemipet temple
(Černý/Gardiner 1957: 11, pl. 35.4)
Ostrakon Petrie 5

Hieratic ostrakon
Prescription of a scorpion-charmer   
       Living in an environment teeming with snakes and scorpions, ancient Egyptians made efforts to 
develop remedies to combat the effects of their venom. This ostrakon contents a short letter from 
Amen-mose to a priest of the Ramesseum. He asks the priest for the ingredients of a remedy for a sick 
man. Amen-mose is a scorpion-charmer. The substances required could have been for a magical cure or 
they could have been used in combination of magic in his work.                           
Translation :
recto :
 The scorpion charmer Amen-mose and the temple scribe, prophet Piay of the mansion of King 
Weser-maat-Re Setep-en-Re, l.p.h. (the Ramesseum) in the House of Amen (on) the West of Thebes.
To the effect that: the prophet is ill. When my letter reaches [you, you] will send him one grain, one jar 
of syrup, one festival date-juice(?).
Translation in McDowell, p. 54-55.
Length: 9.1 cm, width 12.5 cm
Ostrakon Petrie 3

Donkey hire and return
Hieratic ostrakon. Complete.
Translation : 
II prt 24. Donkey was given to policeman Imn-hcw 
for its b3kw. Coming (back) with it on IV prt 15. He brought 1 
goat, that is (ir.n) 3 deben. 
Verso: One condemned (h3d) him (to) 
20 [deben] copper. By the scribe of the Tomb Hori
(Janssen: Donkeys at Deir el-Medina, p. 57)UC39630.
Ramesside period, 1295-1069 BC
From Deir el-Medina
Hieratic ostrakon inscribed in ink 
with a list of the gifts that women 
brought to a feast. On one face 
there are three columns of 13, 15 
and 11 lines, separated by red 
lines into 15 unequal 
compartments, each with a 
personal name followed in by 
Lenght: 19 cm
Width: 20 cm.

From Deir el-Medina
Hieratic ostrakon noting distribution of supplies.
Černý/Gardiner 1957: 6, pl. 19.1.
Ostrakon Petrie 50


I would like to express my thanks to the Petrie Museum and its staff, whose time and help has been 
essential. The museum curator Stephen Quirke kindly gave me permission to publish the ostraka images 
on my web site, Tracey Golding and Ivor Pridden have been generous with their time and assistance.

1. Museum’s own labels
2. Museum’s web site
3. Janssen, Jac. J.: Donkeys at Deir el-Medina
Leiden : Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 2005.
4. McDowell, A.G.: Village life in ancient Egypt : laundry lists and love 
Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999.
5. Clayton, Peter A.: Chronicles of the Pharaohs : the reign-by-reign 
record of the rulers and dynasties of ancient Egypt
London : Thames & Hudson, 1994.

Author: DonFletcher

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