Relics Found At Kingston Lacy Offer Insight Into Ancient Egypt

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 22 August 2007
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a photograph showing several pottery sherds with writing on them

In total, 212 ostraka have been discovered at Kingston Lacey, of which 175 bear identifiable texts. © NTPL

A crate of ancient Egyptian relics discovered at a National Trust property has turned out to be a large collection of inscribed pottery sherds known as 'ostraka', used by scribes to write a variety of notes and messages.

Among the pieces, found during work in the cellars of Kingston Lacy in Dorset are over one hundred tax receipts given by officials for poll tax, mortgages and income tax, providing a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in ancient Egypt.

The ancient sherds form part of a considerable collection of Egyptian artefacts brought to Kingston Lacy in the 19th century by its owner, pioneer Egyptologist William John Bankes.

a photograph of a man with a long beard holding a pottery fragment

Robert Gray, House and Collections Manager at Kingston Lacy with one of the sherds. © NTPL

Less expensive than using papyrus, parchment or pre-industrial paper, the ancient Egyptians used ostraka like scrap paper. They were originally employed as voting ballots to exile unpopular members of a community - who were thus 'ostracised' - but the term is now used for inscribed pottery fragments in general.

"We believe that William John Bankes was referring to the ostraka when he wrote of having collected Greek 'tiles' from his travels to Elephantine in Egypt,” explained Robert Gray, House and Collections Manager at Kingston Lacy. “He was keen to have them translated and sent a number to a Cambridge scholar to be deciphered, but we have no record of him seeing or commenting on the results."

Numbering over two hundred pieces, Bankes’ collection of ostraka are believed to have originated from the island of Elephantine in Lower Egypt. They vary in date, and a number of different languages and ancient scripts appear on them. The majority are tax receipts dating from 200 AD, in Greek, an official language of Egypt at that time.

a photograph of a pottery sherd with writing on it

There is evidence of ostraka being used from the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC through to the 19th century AD. © NTPL

Among the receipts are payments by a farmer for poll tax, a loan for a mortgage to the son of an undertaker, income tax for the production of dates from an orchard, and payment for public utilities and services. At least sixteen of the receipts were issued to the same person, ‘Patsibtis, son of Petorzmethis’.

When the National Trust acquired Kingston Lacy in 1982, the house came with an untold amount of material to catalogue and collate, some of which was stored away for later investigation. Following the recent rediscovery, each of the ostraka was photographed and sent to academics at the University of Leiden, in Holland, who have been translating the inscriptions.

Along with the tax receipts, other ostraka in the collection are believed to include a record of priests who would have stood before the Gods in the temple on a certain day.

a photograph of a hand holding a pottery sherd with writing on it

The languages on the various ostraka include Arabic, Greek, and three scripts used in the Egyptian language: Coptic, Demotic and Hieratic. © NTPL

Large numbers of ostraka have been found and studied over the years, especially in Egypt, where the dry climate preserves ink on potsherds just as it preserves papyri and mummies. There are thousands of examples in the British Museum and other museums around the world. However, the texts on ostraka are never exactly alike and every discovery can offer new insights into a specific region, time or group of individuals.

Bankes amassed a considerable collection of Egyptian artefacts, many of which are displayed throughout the house at Kingston Lacy. The property also features a dedicated Egyptian Room containing many fascinating items from his travels.

"It is fantastic that the ostraka have been rediscovered and that we can now add to our knowledge of Bankes and his collections," added Robert Gray.