A puzzling model letter from Deir el-Bahari: ostracon Cairo JdE 49911

Por Antonio J. Morales

The mortuary complex TT 314 and the tomb of Harhotep

In the two seasons (1921-1923) conducted by the MMA Expedition in the mortuary complex TT 314 (MMA 513), Herbert Winlock found what he described as “ka-servants’ scrap-baskets […] some pieces of broken pots on which the ka-servant had jotted memoranda with a bit of charcoal” (Winlock 1942, 57). One of these “broken pots” consisted on an ostracon with a model letter written by Harhotep the justified (!)… How could we explain the authorship of this document? What practices of writing in the necropolis could we draw from the composition of model letters, the training of missive phraseology, and the involvement of the dead in the documents? The model letter found by Winlock –currently, Cairo Museum ostracon JdE 49911– might offer a window into some of the writing practices at the Middle Kingdom necropolis of Deir el-Bahari.

The tomb of Harhotep was discovered by Gaston Maspero in February 1883 in the northern escarpment of Deir el-Bahari’s amphitheatre, dug just in the courtyard of tomb TT 314 (Maspero 1889, 134-135; Morales/Osman 2018). As Maspero observed, the underground structure of this tomb –from its passage entrance to its mortuary chamber– was situated in the north-eartern corner of the courtyard in TT 314: “a steep passage roughly hewn out of the rock led down a descent of nearly 30 meters to a sort of vestibule, from which trough an opening on the right it fell abruptly into the chamber where the little edifice now in the museum was erected” (Maspero 1908, 101). This particular –the fact that the tomb of Harhotep was not located inside the rock-cut tomb TT 314– should make scholars consider the possibility that Harhotep were not the owner of the main complex, TT 314.

Fig. 1: View of the courtyard and façade of the mortuary complex TT314 (center) in the northern hills at Deir el-Bahari

In 1921, digging in the courtyard of TT 314, Herbert Winlock initiated the re-excavation of the tomb (Winlock 1922, 36; Winlock 1942, 57). Regarding the entire complex TT 314, it presents the fundamental architectural elements of the Middle Kingdom elite tombs in the area: a rectangular enclosure wall with entrance at the feet of the hills, a small chapel in the entrance area (dedicated to the memory of the deceased), subsidiary burials and chapels (we know at least five shafts, among them the tomb of Harhotep), the tomb façade cut in the rock (covered with mudbrick), and the rock-cut structure. In the search for Harhotep’s tomb, Winlock discovered a “cranny” where some baskets were left behind: there, remnants of a papyrus scroll with hymns and a papyrus fragment with an account of grain mixed with the aforementioned broken pots (Winlock 1922, 36-37). Among them, eleven fragments of a light-coloured globular pot with charcoal rough writing on the outside and inside took the attention of the excavators. Together, they formed a complete text mentioning Harhotep, probably the owner of the nearby tomb (James 1962, 78-79, pls. 20-20A).

Fig. 2: View of the recto, ostracon Cairo Museum JdE 49911
Fig. 3: View of the verso, ostracon Cairo Museum JdE 49911

The mortuary complex TT 314 is currently investigated by the Polish Mission at Deir el-Bahari and its Projekt Asasif. In recent years, the Polish Mission has focused on the excavation of the lower section of the courtyard in TT 314, revealing a mudbrick chapel situated at the entrance of the complex (Chudzik/Caban 2019; Chudzik 2015: esp. 243-244). Unfortunately, the mudbrick structure and its associated findings therein have not contributed to confirm the name of the owner of the mortuary complex TT 314. Further excavations in the complex by the Polish Mission will no doubt shed light on the ownership of TT 314 and the grounds for Harhotep’s burial in its courtyard.

The model letter: ostracon Cairo Museum JdE 49911

Examination of the single ostracon recovered by the MMA expedition during its search for the tomb of Harhotep might shed light on some of the writing practices conducted by scribes, officiants, and relatives in this Middle Kingdom cemetery and its surroundings. The necropolis must have been a place of transient personal and administrative affairs as the remains of scribal materials, papyri, wooden boxes with ink, clay, sealings, and ostraca indicate (Allen 2002, 4-6; Wente 1990, 8-9). The document, therefore, add one more glimpse about the practices and experiences of the living in the land of the dead (Baines and Lacovara 2002).

Fig. 4: Reconstruction of ostracon JdE 49911 through high-resolution photography

Ostracon JdE 49911 displays nine columns of hieratic text in its recto and four columns in its verso (figs. 2-3). The text is written with charcoal, using large signs in both sides, although the size of the last two columns of the verso seem exceptionally large (see fig. 3). Two other features capture the attention of the observer: on the one hand, column 4 of the recto shows traces of an earlier text, perhaps a rectified mistake with a personal name; on the other, the hieratic text of the verso is written in retrograde writing. Added to this, column 4 of the verso puts end to the text with the phrase “Harhotep, justified”.

The straightforward beginning of the inscription in cols. 1-2 of recto (“Harhotep speaks to”) follows the traditional opening attested in letters sent to equals. A much more formal “his humble servant” could have evidenced a solemn address to a superior (Wente 1990, 9-10). Then, it follows (cols. 6-7) another conventional form of greeting (“How are you? How are you? Are you alive, prosperous, and healthy?”) and a exclamatory wish for the support and favour of a god –in this case, Amon-Re– for the document’s recipients: “You (pl.) are in the favour of Amon-Re every day, (says) Harhotep, justified”. The presence of Amon-Re –instead of other classical mentions such as Ptah-South-of-His-Wall, Herishef, and Montu– might indicate a date well into the Twelfth Dynasty, which matches suitably with the period of Senwosret I, the king to whom Harhotep seems to have served. The accentuation of the good desires by the writer (“as the scribe Harhotep says”) responds to common phraseology attested in the Book of Kemit (“as I, your humble servant, desire”: Wente 1990, 15).

Fig. 5: Preliminary facsimile for the recto section of ostracon JdE 49911
Fig. 6: Hieroglyphic transcription of the hieratic text in the recto section of ostracon JdE 49911
Fig. 7: Transliteration and translation of the text in recto and verso in ostracon Cairo Museum JdE 49911

Indeed, the mention of “Harhotep, justified” reveals a relationship between the worlds of the living and the dead. Considering that we count with letters addressed even to coffins (Frandsen 1992), we should not be surprised about the complexities of these documents and the involvement of the dead. In this regard, Julia Troche indicates that “Letters to the Dead are primarily written in hieratic upon ceramic vessels, favoring either a circular pattern, spiraling from the bowls’ rim to its center, or columns” (Troche 2018, 2; also Donnat 2014). However, this document is not a Letter to the Dead… Then, how do we explain the presence of Harhotep, the justified, in the document and the addressing of an unknown writter, perhaps in Harhotep’s name, to three other individuals (recto cols. 2-5: “Udjaa, ‘Ab-ikhu, and Harhotep-em-peref’s son, Hotep”)? According to James, “the nature of the material and the character of the text –which consists solely of formal epistolary phrases– make it probable that the document is the casual scribble of a visitor to the tomb of Harhotpe or of a workman who was working on the site” (James 1962, 79). The hypothesis seems sound: a potsherd used by an officiant, perhaps a visiting relative, who made up a text while in the necropolis to practice phraseology commonly used in missives; in his trial, he did not only draw from typical phrases but he might also have composed the list of addressee from well-known individuals. In fact, all the names are attested in the Middle Kingdom (e.g. ‘Ab-ikhu in Allen 2002, pls. 52-53, l. 14), and the allussion to Harhotep through one of them (Harhotep-em-peref) might even be indicative of kin relationship. As James himself puts it, ““[i]n model letters of this kind, the scribes undoubtedly used names of their own invention or of relations and friends to people their texts” (James 1962, 99).

And as the text concludes with “Harhotep, justified”, how do we explain such a reference at the end of this brief study? Some space in the lower section of col. 3 in the verso allows for the parenthetic particle jn (“to say”) to appear. Therefore, one could read “You (pl.) are in the favour of Amon-Re every day, (says) Harhotep, justified”. At first, the recto references to “Harhotep”, the author communicating to three addressees, and to the “scribe Harhotep”, might indicate that the owner of the tomb himself, a relative of his, or a worker of his staff –someone with the same name or invoking his master’s name– could have written the ostracon. However, the maa-kheru epithet in the verso calls for other interpretations. One possible solution would be to consider that the epithet maa-kheru –as some scholars have already pointed out– might not always imply a deceased person (Harrington 2013, 15-16). Another explanation would be that the epithet were added by a member of Harhotep’s staff after his master’s death.

However, two further interpretations offer interesting alternatives. On the one hand, a possible interpretation would relate to the well-known phenomenon of the tomb visitors’ graffiti or Besucherinschriften. As Navrátilová has noted, tomb visitors left behind graffiti, “a type of communication with the world of the dead and in some cases perhaps a kind of response to the ‘Calls to the Living’” (Navrátilová 2010, 4). As a similar device of communication between two realms (living and dead), an ostracon supposedly written by the tomb owner on behalf of his visitors would not only allow our scribe to practice his schooling but would also offer his staff the opportunity to commemorate its master’s prestige and care for visitors (Harrington 2013, 137-138). Here, as a social and magical resource, writing becomes a motivating factor in worship practices and memorial construction at the necropolis. Regarding the appreciation by the living, compositions such as the eulogy to prestigious men found in pChester Beatty IV state its significance:

A man has perished: his corpse is dust,

and his people have passed from the land;

it is a book which makes him remembered

in the mouth of a speaker. More excellent

is a roll than a built house, than a chapel

in the west”(Parkinson 1991, 150)

On the other hand, one might want to consider the ostracon not only as a scribal exercise for personal instruction and the tomb owner’s commemoration, but as an actual tribute to this local master and a motivated text to achieve his mediation (Baines 1987, 86-88). In terms of cult, ostraca of this type might have worked locally as exercises of communication, social cohesion, memory celebration, and personal reverence. In this sense, to the preserved Letters to the Dead asking the deceased to act explicitly as a mediator, one could think on this document as a constructed answer by the tomb owner to visitors requesting his attention.


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Baines, J. 1987. “Practical religion and piety”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 73, 79-98.

Baines, J./Lacovara, P. 2002. “Burial and the dead in ancient Egyptian society: respect, formalism, neglect”, Journal of Social Archaeology 2, 5-36.

Chudzik, P. 2015. “The tombs of Asasif: archaeological exploration in the 2013/2014 season”, Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 24/1, 239-246.

Chudzik, P./Caban, M. 2019. “Observations on the architecture of the tomb of Horhotep in western Thebes”, Études et Travaux 30, 221-229.

Donnat Beauquier, S. 2014. Écrire à ses morts. Enquête sur un usage de l’écrit dans l’Égypte pharaonique. Grenoble: Jérôme Millon.

Frandsen, P.J. 1992. “The letter to Ikhtay’s coffin: O. Louvre Inv. No. 698”, in R.J. Demarée/A. Egberts (eds.), Village Voices. Proceedings of the Symposium “Texts from Deir el-Medîna and their interpretation”. Leiden, May 31-June 1, 1991. Leiden: CNWS Publications, 31-49.

Harrington, N. 2013. Living with the Dead. Ancestor Worship and Mortuary Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Oxford-Oakville: Oxbow Books.

James, T.G.H. 1962. The Hekanakhte Papers and Other Early Middle Kingdom Documents (Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition 19). New York: Oxford University Press.

Jürgens, P. 1990. “Der Tote als Mittler zwischen Mensch und Göttern im Berliner Sargtexte-Papyrus: Ein Zeugnis inoffizieller Religion aus dem Mittleren Reich”, Göttinger Miszellen 116, 51-63.

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Maspero, G. 1889. “Trois années de fouilles dans les tombeaux de Thèbes et de Memphis”, in G. Maspero (ed.), Mémoires de la Mission Archéologique Française au Caire. Vol. 1. Paris: Ernest Leroux Éditeur, pp. 133-242.

Morales, A.J./Osman, M. 2018. “Individual and Zeitgeist: textual and iconographic selections in the chapel of Harhotep (CG 28023)”, in L. Hudáková/P. Jánosi/U. Siffert (eds.), Art-facts and artefacts: visualising the material world in Middle Kingdom Egypt. London: Golden House Publications, pp. 85-99.

Navrátilová, H. 2010. “Graffiti spaces”, in L. Bareš/F. Coppens/K. Smoláriková (eds.), Egypt in transition: social and religious development of Egypt in the first millennium BCE. Proceeding of an international conference, Prague, September 1-4, 2009. Prage: Charles University in Prague, 305-332.

Parkinson, R.B. 1991. Voices from Ancient Egypt. An Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings. London: British Museum Press.

Troche, J. 2018. “Letters to the Dead”, in J. Dieleman/W. Wendrich (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. Los Angeles: UCLA.

Wente, E.F. 1990. Letters from Ancient Egypt (Writings of the Ancient World 1). Atlanta: SBL Press.

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Winlock, H.E. 1942. Excavations at Deir el-Bahri 1911-1931. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Note: Unless expressly indicated to the contrary, photos in this article are copyright of The Middle Kingdom Theban Project © MKTP. Figs. 2 and 3 were taken by Mohamed Osman with permission of the Cairo Museum authorities. Fig. 4 was produced afterwards from high resolution modelling. Figs. 5-7 present the author’s preliminary drawing, transcription, transliteration, and translation of the text in the ostracon.

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MKTP - Middle Kingdom Theban Project - Recuperando el pasado


The Middle Kingdom Theban Project aims at the excavation, study, and publication of several tombs in the Middle Kingdom necropolis of Deir el-Bahari (Henenu, Ipi, Neferhotep, E1), as well as of the tombs of Dagi (TT 103) and Djari (TT 366) in the necropolis of Asasif.

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Under the auspices of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, and its authorities in Upper Egypt, Luxor, and the West Bank.

The tombs

The tombs of Henenu (TT 313) and Ipi (TT 315) are locate in the northern hills of the necropolis at Deir el-Bahari, where some of the most prominent high officials from the time of Mentuhotep II and the early Middle Kingdom were buried.
The funerary chamber of Harhotep (CG 28023) was unearthed in the upper courtyard of the tomb TT 314, and it constituted one of the most interesting examples from the site in terms of architecture, iconography, and epigraphy.
In the plain of Asasif, the tombs of Dagi (TT 103) and Djari (TT 366) also represent special monuments built to the memory of some Theban high officials from the reign of Mentuhotep II who contributed to the construction of the new country.

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Editor: Antonio J. Morales
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