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Ostrakon of The Tale of Sinuhe

British Museum

British Museum

The eight lines of hieratic on one side of this ostrakon are a copy of the final lines of a classic poem of Egyptian literature. It is probably a copy made by an apprentice scribe. It is also inscribed with the colophon, the indication that the end of the text has been reached. A number of small red dots in the text are what is known as 'verse points', and mark the ends of lines of verse.

It is thought that the Tale of Sinuhe was originally composed over seven centuries earlier, in the early Twelfth Dynasty (about 1985-1795 BC). The full text is principally known from two papyri in Berlin, at the Ägyptisches Museum and Payrus-Sammlung. It is written as an autobiography placed in a tomb, but the complexity and subtlety of the language make it certain that it is fictional. The story follows Sinuhe's flight from Egypt after the death of Amenemhat I (about 1955 BC), his stay in Palestine, and his subsequent return to Egypt.

The Tale continued to be read and copied well into the New Kingdom (about 1550-1070 BC), with many surviving extracts on ostraka and papyri.

In modern times the story inspired a novel by Mika Waltari (1908-79), Sinuhe the Egyptian (1945), in which the Tale was set in the more glamorous Amarna Period, with the hero dying in tragic exile. In the original version, Sinuhe regains his postion in Egyptian society and -in the final words - '[he] was in the favour of the king's giving, / until the day of landing [that is, death] came. The Tale was also retold as a Hollywood epic, The Egyptian (directed by Michael Curtiz, 1954), starring Edmond Purdom as Sinuhe, and co-starring Peter Ustinov. The Tale of Sinuhe is now regarded as the masterpiece of ancient Egyptian writing.

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Details

  • Title: Ostrakon of The Tale of Sinuhe
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 17.00cm; Width: 30.00cm; Depth: 5.00cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: painted
  • Registration number: 1839,0921.461
  • Place: Found/Acquired Thebes
  • Period/culture: 19th Dynasty
  • Material: limestone
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Purchased from Anastasi, Giovanni
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