Posted by: iMalqata Blog | February 15, 2017

Another Bottle of Beer on the Wall (Part I)

Niv Allon

Over the weekend, Diana sent me a picture of ink marks on a small pottery fragment. Everyone was very excited since this is only the second piece of pottery with an ink inscription that we have found at Malqata.


Diana’s field photo of the ostracon

Although this ostracon might appear too broken and faded to decode, the few fragmentary signs that can be discerned give a clue regarding the vessel to which it once belonged, the contents it once held, and the person who might have sent it. It also provides us with an opportunity to share a bit of the process by which inscriptions of this kind are deciphered.


Diana’s field sketch of the ostracon

Like handwritten inscriptions everywhere, the writing of hieratic signs may vary from one hand to another and from one period to another, depending on styles and trends, as well as the surface on which it is written and the sign’s place in the word. Finding comparable writings from a similar timeframe is therefore essential. These can be found in a book by Georg Möller (Hieratische Paläographie: Die aegyptische Buchschrift in ihrer Entwicklung von der fünften Dynastie), who collected numerous examples of signs and organized them chronologically. Though first published in 1909, this book remains irreplaceable. It only has a limited number of examples from Amenhotep III’s time, but fortunately, the extensive collection of jar labels from Malqata in The Met’s collection provides us with a wealth of handwritten inscriptions contemporaneous with our fragment.

At first it is useful to observe the signs closely and study the manner in which they are produced. Hieratic is always written from right to left, and the first sign (on the top) begins in a curve at the left, turning into long and flat line, and ending with a bigger curve down. Only a few signs carry these characteristics, among which “a” (its hieroglyphic equivalent is ayin) seems very likely.


Sign no. 99 in Möller’s Hieratische Paläographie (volume II)

The sign on our ostracon starts, however, quite awkwardly above the middle of the sign below it. A similar writing appears, in fact, in an inscription on one of the jar labels from our collection (17.10.395), but rather than an “a,” the sign is an s. The sign “s” (bolt) is usually written in a continuous line with two strokes added to the middle of the line:


Sign no. 366 in Möller’s Hieratische Paläographie (volume II)

But the writer of the inscription on the jar seems to have done it differently:


Jar Label from Malqata (Rogers Fund 1917, 17.10.395)


Detail of 17.10.395

Instead of a continuous line, he divided it into two. It is thus, possible that the writer of our ostracon wrote the sign s (bolt) in a similar manner, but the left part of it was lost along with the rest of the inscription.

The jar label and our ostracon also share the second sign of the inscription. Some hieratic signs closely resemble their equivalent hieroglyphs, but for most part, hieratic developed along its own course, and signs that look very different in hieroglyphs can closely resemble each other in hieratic, and vice versa. The hieroglyphic counterparts of the second sign here might be a mouth (mouth) a hand (hand) or a rope (hobble), whose hieroglyphs are each drawn very differently, but closely resemble each other in hieratic.



Signs nos. 91, 115, 528 in Möller’s Hieratische Paläographie (volume II)

Of the three, the first choice seems unlikely, but here again our collection of jar labels from Malqata is very useful in providing close comparisons and it is an “r.”



Two examples of “r” from The Met’s collection of jar labels

The final sign is …tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion . . .!


  1. A very enjoyable article, looking forward to be reading part two! Thankyou for sharing this work.


  2. Cool! Niv is the best!

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