Picking Up the Pieces: Jonathan Downs Looks at a Collection of Egyptian Pottery Sherds Discovered at the National Trust's Mansion, Kingston Lacy, in Dorset

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IN 1982, WHEN THE NATIONAL TRUST acquired Kingston Lacy, the Dorset home of Egyptologist William John Bankes (1786-1855), there was an untold amount of material to collate and catalogue--in particular, a collection of Egyptian relics gathered in the early 1800s. A group of these artefacts lay hidden until last year when an unmarked crate was discovered during works to the cellars: inside were 212 Egyptian ostraka, apparently collected by Bankes from the upper reaches of the Nile.

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Ostraka is an ancient Greek term originally for broken pottery sherds inscribed with a person's name, once used as voting ballots to exile unpopular members of the community--who would thus be 'ostracized'. The term is now used for any inscribed pottery fragments. Readily available as waste rubble, Egyptian ostraka were frequently used to write notes, letters, receipts, rough drafts and calculations, from the first known use of writing in the 3rd millennium BC until the nineteenth century AD.

Trust archaeologist Nancy Grace asked Egyptologist Brian Muhs of Leiden University to help decipher the inscriptions. While he and his colleagues work on the translation, Dr Joanne Rowland of Oxford is examining the ostraka as artefacts.

Of the 212 sherds, 175 bear identifiable texts: 125 Greek, 42 Demotic Egyptian, 6 Arabic, one Coptic, and one Hieratic sherd, the oldest of the group, possibly a draft of a letter or a school exercise, dating to the 2nd millennium BC.

The Greek ostraka seem to be chiefly tax receipts--Greek was an official language in Egypt from the time of Alexander's conquest until the spread of Islam. The demotic texts could be priest-lists from the local temple, specifying names of priests who 'stood before the god' on a given day. However, the find seems to be only half of a larger hoard from the island of Elephantine. The other half appears to have been taken by Henry' Salt (1780-1827), British Consul-General in Cairo--part of the Salt collection was published and is now in the British Library, many of the sherds bearing names from the Greek Kingston Lacy tax receipts.

In his 1830 publication of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati, his guide on his Egyptian journey, Bankes refers to the ostraka as his Greek 'tiles' from Elephantine. He was keen to have them translated, and later sent a number to the Cambridge scholar Peter Paul Dobree, who published his findings in 1835--but these ostraka are not among the Kingston Lacy find, and may have been kept by Dobree.

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Bankes is arguably one of Britain's seminal explorers of Egypt. A flamboyant character, wit and polymath, he was once referred to by his lifelong friend Lord Byron as 'my master and patron' and the 'father of all mischief'. But Bankes was no gentleman dilettante: blessed with an exceptional memory and powers of observation, he was a scholar of ancient history and believed that Greek inscriptions could reveal the history and chronology of Egypt. An accomplished artist, his collection of sketches and detailed plans attests to his skill.

Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, collectors began to visit Egypt much as the Grand Tourists had done in Greece, Spain and Italy in the preceding century, and many of their acquisitions became the cornerstone of Egyptian collections in Turin, Berlin, London, Paris, and Leiden. …