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Ramses II in Mourning

A new look at a work from Egypt’s New Kingdom
April 22, 2016


Figured ostracon: Ramses II suckled by a goddess c. 1279–1213 bc. New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, reign of Ramses II. Probably Thebes, Egypt. Painted limestone; 31.2 x 18.2 x 3.3 cm. Given in honor of James N. Sherwin, Trustee 1957–1971 1987.156

An exhibition is often an occasion to look at old objects anew. Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt presents a selection of 145 works from the British Museum’s renowned Egyptian collection, together with a dozen pieces from Cleveland’s own collection, including a figured ostracon that depicts a divine nursing scene. While preparing the exhibition catalogue, we had the opportunity to take a new look at this remarkable piece.

On the right of this large limestone flake stands the figure of Ramses II, suckled by a goddess whose name is lost. The king wears the khepresh crown (often called the blue crown), with a uraeus at the brow, a pleated robe over a short kilt with an ornamented central flap, and sandals. He holds two scepters in his left hand, while raising his right one, palm outward, toward the goddess in a sign of adoration. His identity is indicated by a cartouche behind him, giving his prenomen, or coronation name, User-maat-Ra Setep-en-Ra—that is, Ramses II. The goddess’s close-fitting dress has a vulture-feathered pattern, and she wears a tripartite wig with a ribbon adorned by a cobra jewel that matches her earring. She holds Ramses II by the shoulders with one hand while offering her breast to him with the other. The king is shown on a smaller scale than the nursing goddess—a representational convention rather than an indication of his age (as Ramses II was 21 or 22 years old when he ascended the throne). The scene is framed by a black ground line at the bottom, the hieroglyph of the sky at the top, and three lines in black and red on each side. Below, a legend in cursive hieroglyphs completes the scene.

Divine nursing of the king is an iconographic theme known at least since the Old Kingdom. Although the identity of the nursing goddess here is lost, her vulture-feathered dress suggests the idea of motherhood (which the vulture symbolized in ancient Egypt). Thus, through her milk, the divine wet-nurse offers protection to Ramses II. Divine nursing of the king was related to three types of birth: true birth, birth into kingship (at the king’s accession and enthronement), and rebirth after death.



Ramses II represented in the tomb of Nakhtamun New Kingdom, Dynasty 20. Thebes, Cheikh Abd el-
Gurna, tomb of Nakhtamun (TT 341). Photo: From Nina M. Davies and Alan H. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Paintings, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936), plate C 

Several details hint at the scene’s context and the ostracon’s function. First, a close look at Ramses II’s face reveals three rows of black dots at the nape of the neck, and a few more on the temple, beneath the crown, representing hair growth. In ancient Egypt, unkempt hair, often paired with a stubble (perhaps present here through a subtle wash of red ocher on the jaw?), was a sign of mourning, as recounted by Herodotus: “the Egyptians, who wear no hair at any time, when they lose a relative, let their beards and the hair of their head grow long” (Histories 2.36, translated by George Rawlinson [New York, 1909]). French Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt has demonstrated that Egyptian kings wore their hair and beard unkempt as a sign of mourning of their predecessor, during the period between their accession and enthronement. The accession to the throne took place on the first day following the death of the new king’s predecessor while the enthronement could take place only after the new king had taken care of his predecessor’s funeral and burial in the Valley of the Kings, ideally 70 days after his death. Although bearing the same name (khaou nesut, or “appearance of the king”), accession and enthronement were two different events. Concerning Ramses II, we do know that he accessed to the throne at the end of July, possibly 1279 bc, upon his father’s death, and that his coronation must have taken place shortly afterward, in Thebes, probably in Karnak.

Thus, this image relates to the period of mourning following the death of Seti I, Ramses II’s father, and most probably dates from this time as well. Several Ramesside ostraca, as well as a few wall reliefs and paintings, represent the king in mourning, but rarely in connection with divine nursing. Furthermore, art in the earlier Ramesside period displayed Amarna influences; here indeed we can note a few, such as the pierced earlobe, the three creases of flesh on the necks of Ramses II and the goddess, the rendering of the hands, and especially the differentiation of far and near feet. Together with the iconography of mourning, these Amarna mannerisms suggest that this image was executed during the early stage of Ramses II’s reign, in his year 1.



Ostracon with a royal head c. 1280 bc. New Kingdom, Dynasty 19. Western Thebes, Egypt. Painted limestone; 18.5 x 14.6 x 2.9 cm. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 32.1 

A third meaningful feature should be noted, which is the khepresh crown worn by Ramses II. This royal headdress is often associated with the king’s mourning and relates to accession and enthronement. Often described as a “war crown,” the khepresh actually has several meanings, such as symbolizing coronation and power (hence its presence in military events where it depicts the king as triumphant), and, above all, designating the living king.

Lastly, placing the ostracon in context, the object and its inscriptions in hieratic writing at the back (regarding bread and grain deliveries) point toward the community of Deir el-Medina. This settlement, on the west bank of Thebes, was occupied by the workmen and artists responsible for the carving and decoration of the royal tombs during the New Kingdom. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Cleveland’s ostracon comes from Deir el-Medina, as many ostraca have been found in the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and nearby sanctuaries. Such limestone flakes were generally used by draftsmen and painters for sketches and apprenticeship, but this example’s large size (ostraca larger than 25 cm in height or width being quite rare) and finished condition point to a different function. Despite several breaks in the upper right corner, at the bottom, and on the left side, we can still recognize the scene’s rectangular shape. The nuanced palette, careful drawing, and composition denote a highly skilled draftsman. Therefore, it can be ranked among the very few ostraca not associated with artistic practice, instead functioning as a finished work. These images have been labeled “stela-ostraca” by the Swiss scholar Andreas Dorn, as they often have a votive function. Thus, Cleveland’s ostracon may well have been created as a commemoration of Ramses II’s accession to the throne. Other aspects, such as its inscriptions, the nursing deity’s identity, and the association of divine nursing with mourning, require further study, and we hope to publish findings in a subsequent article.  


Cleveland Art, May/June 2016