Inscribed Pottery Fragments Document Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Archaeologists from the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities have unearthed a collection of more than 18,000 ostraca (inscribed pottery fragments) in the ancient Egyptian town of Athribis, near to the modern city of Sohag, Egypt. The artifacts document names, purchases of food and everyday objects, and even writings from a school.

The temple of Athribis, Egypt. Image credit: Marcus Müller / Athribis-Project Tübingen.

The temple of Athribis, Egypt. Image credit: Marcus Müller / Athribis-Project Tübingen.

Ostraca (plural for ostracon) are pottery fragments used as surfaces for writing or drawing.

They were used as notepads for private letters, laundry lists, records of purchases, and copies of literary works.

By extension, the term is applied to flakes of limestone which were employed for similar purposes.

An ostracon with child’s drawing. Image credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen.

An ostracon with child’s drawing. Image credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen.

“In ancient times, ostraca were used in large quantities as writing material, inscribed with ink and a reed or hollow stick (calamus),” explained Professor Christian Leitz, a researcher with the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, and his colleagues from the Athribis Project, an archaeological and philological endeavor investigating the ancient Egyptian town of Athribis.

The archeologists uncovered a collection of more than 18,000 ostraca in the ruins of Athribis.

Fragment of a school text with a bird alphabet in Hieratic. On the right, the name of the bird, and on the left, the numbers from 5 to 8, which reflect the position of the letters in the list. Image credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen.

Fragment of a school text with a bird alphabet in Hieratic. On the right, the name of the bird, and on the left, the numbers from 5 to 8, which reflect the position of the letters in the list. Image credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen.

“These ostraca provide a variety of insights into the everyday life of Athribis,” they said.

“Around 80% of the potsherds are inscribed in Demotic, the common administrative script in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which developed from Hieratic after 600 BCE.”

“Among the second most common finds are ostraca with Greek script, but we also came across inscriptions in Hieratic, hieroglyphic and — more rarely — Coptic and Arabic scripts.”

Pupils had to write lines. Image credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen.

Pupils had to write lines. Image credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen.

The researchers also found pictorial ostraca with various figurative representations, including animals such as scorpions and swallows, humans, deities from the nearby temple, even geometric figures.

“The contents of the ostraca vary from lists of various names to accounts of different foods and items of daily use,” they said.

“A surprisingly large number of sherds could be assigned to an ancient school.”

“There are lists of months, numbers, arithmetic problems, grammar exercises and a ‘bird alphabet’ — each letter was assigned a bird whose name began with that letter.”

Receipt for bread in Demotic; the loaves are distributed in multiples of 5 (often 5, sometimes 10 or 20); many of the buyers are women. Image credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen.

Receipt for bread in Demotic; the loaves are distributed in multiples of 5 (often 5, sometimes 10 or 20); many of the buyers are women. Image credit: Athribis-Project Tübingen.

“Several hundreds of ostraca also contain writing exercises that we classified as punishment,” they added.

“They are inscribed with the same one or two characters each time, both on the front and back.”

Source: sci-news.com

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