I recently received an enquiry about the short inscription on this pottery sherd – or ostracon. The piece comes from the collection of Mr George Spiegelberg, a merchant in Manchester and brother of the famous German Egyptologist Wilhelm Spiegelberg (1870-1930). The ostracon shows the head of a ram deity with a rearing cobra before it, sketched first in red and then gone over in black.
The provenance of the sherd is most likely to be the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BC) village of Deir el-Medina, built to house the workers involved in the construction of tombs in and around the Valley of the Kings. Hundreds of similar sketches on limestone flakes or pottery sherds – in some sense the equivalent of modern ‘post-it’ notes – have been discovered there. Deir el-Medina was home to a variety of deities, local forms – differentiated by the addition of various epithets – of the gods worshipped in major state temples. Amun-Re was worshipped on the opposite side of the river to the village, at the great temple of Karnak, and is well attested in other contexts in the form of a ram. Here his epithet is ‘Shu en heru’. Shu was the god of air and sunlight, so a literal rendering of the text is ‘the light of day’.
The ostracon was most probably a draughtsman’s trial piece. Apprentices learnt to sketch in red, before a more experienced draughtsman went over this outline in black, correcting any mistakes. While the flake may have had a functional use as a practice piece, it could have served a votive function – as a record of piety – in and of itself.
Although no one is named as being ‘beloved’ of the god (it seems unlikely to me that the name has broken off), the rest of the text all appears to have been written entirely in black. The hieroglyphs fit around the image, within the edges of the sherd – suggesting the text is by a different, more confident hand than the first red outline. By the addition of this short caption, a draughtsman’s sketch is transformed into an explicit depiction of a god.