Height: 16.500 cm
Acquired at the sale of the Belmore Collection (1843)
Ancient Egypt and Sudan
Limestone ostrakon showing a woman suckling a child
Probably from Deir el-Medina, Thebes,
later New Kingdom, 1300-1100 BC
The term ostrakon is used to describe a flake of limestone that has been used as a writing or drawing surface. Papyrus was often too expensive a medium for everyday jottings or exercises, and the digging of tombs meant that there were many loose flakes of limestone on the ground that could be used instead. This was particularly true in Thebes, from where the majority of examples in museum collections come.
Most ostraka from Thebes come from the town where the workers in the Valley of the Kings lived. Thus the writings often shed light on administrative and legal matters. Some, known as figured ostraka, have drawings: generally a mixture of doodles, artistic experiments, and even first drafts of decoration to be placed on the walls of tombs.
This example is unusual; it shows a woman suckling her child, seated inside a bower of convolvulus plants with their distinctive almost triangular leaves. The woman is naked, and wears her hair up in a rather unusual fashion. The fragment of the scene below shows a woman staring into a mirror. The scene of the mother feeding her child may be a wish for good health and success in the early days of child rearing. The convolvulus plant is associated with (re)birth, which does suggest that the scene might have had some sympathetic magical purpose.
G. Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
E.R. Russmann, Eternal Egypt: masterworks of (University of California Press, 2001)
J. Vandier d'Abbadie, Bulletin de lInstitut Français, 56 (1957), pp. 21-34