An Ostracon of a Royal Horseback Rider

Approx. 4-inch wide ostracon of a royal rider on a bay horse in the Cairo museum

Small Ostracon of a Royal Rider on a Bay Horse, painted limestone, Cairo.

a pharaoh's head with uraeus on foreheadA mounted horseman from the reign of Ramses VI on an ostacon in Cairo is no scout or messenger. Behold! The rider wears a uraeus on his forehead and a false beard, the signs of kingship.

spotted lion or leopard from a Maspero drawing of a pharaoh in his chariotAlongside the horse, disappearing off the front edge, an undulating black-spotted partial image suggests a tame leopard galloping in stride with the horse. The lion or leopard theme is another sign of royalty, usually accompanying a pharaoh in his chariot.

a pharaoh's head with uraeus on foreheadThe pharaoh holds a long weapon or whip high in his left hand clear of the stallion's neck. His right hand holds something else down low. Either the rider's white garment stylishly criss-crosses his chest or a quiver rides across his shoulders on the front instead of over the shoulder to the back as usual.

a pharaoh's head with uraeus on foreheadPerhaps the faint loop at this rider's waist signifies that the reins are fastened there to free his hands. That convention appears on reliefs of kings shooting arrows from their chariots in order to dispense with the driver who would normally accompany the pharaoh in his chariot into battle. This artistic convention probably serves to glorify the king as master horseman, marksman and powerful vanquisher of enemies. Yet the same convention used by two mounted horsemen suggests this may have been an actual method horsemen used to manage the action. Chariot horses must have been well trained to carry on into the fray with only the tension from the rider's body on the reins to guide them. A charioteer must rely heavily on the reins to cue the horses. A highly skilled mounted horseman has more aids. He can guide a horse with leg and seat pressure.

a pharaoh's head with uraeus on foreheadThis rider's seat recalls the scout on horseback at Luxor Temple from the earlier Ramesses II. He sits balanced in control on bareback but quite far behind the center than a modern dressage rider would choose. Is he actually riding awkwardly on the horse's croup or does the artist place him there because of formulaic constraints? 1 This question arises wherever Egyptian artists depict riders.

a pharaoh's head with uraeus on foreheadBoth legs appear to hang on the right side of the horse. Rather than indicating sidesaddle style, this convention probably follows the prescription for a maintaining a body's integrity by showing all its parts in plain sight. As usual, the figure displays full frontal shoulders, head in profile, with profiled hips and legs.

a pharaoh's head with uraeus on foreheadWhat a perfectly beautiful bright bay stallion the king rides. His tail is long and his mane is short. His mane, tail and feet are black and black outlines define his whole body. This horse's type would delight a modern Egyptian horse breeder with his high carried arched tail and neck. A huge dark eye, small alert ears, chiseled nose and short face define an extreme Arab head. He is truly a mount for a king.

a pharaoh's head with uraeus on foreheadThe other horse ostraca I photgraphed are incomplete and simpler in a more sketchy style you'd expect from a quick draft. This piece is the work of a master artist with full color and detail. Ostraca are commonly studies for tomb or temple paintings. Artists used a flake of stone or broken pottery as their sketch pad. This ostracon's theme does not appear on any known wall scenes. Sometimes artists sketched satyrical scenes apparently for their own amusement never intended to become translated into greater works. Those delight us with their rare glimpses into actual life minus the formulaic constraints defining official artistic works. The artist of this piece deftly painted a miniature of the quality which could suit a finished wall. The figures are precisely drawn and color further defines them.

a pharaoh's head with uraeus on foreheadThe subject matter of this ostracon defies convention. Pharaohs are depicted driving a chariot for transportation, never on horseback. Horses never appear in kings' tomb reliefs because the horse never made it into Egyptian ideology. They were introduced into Egypt too late in their religious development to join the animal pantheon. The kings' tomb walls are devoted to insuring the kings' proper afterlife with prescriptive passages and incantations. Equipment to accompany the kings into their eternal life sometimes included horse related paraphernialia or utensils ornamented with images glorifying the kings' use of horses pulling chariots. Wall scenes depicting horses appear only in the tombs of nobles and craftsmen who intended to insure perpetuation of their earthly roles after their deaths.

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NOTES:

  1. I.E.S. Edwards, Treasures of Tutankhamun, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1976. The rule requires all body parts to appear intact. Edwards notes that Tutankhamun's artists solved the problem differently on each of three pieces depicting the king drawing his bow.

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