18,000 ostraca documenting daily life found in Egypt

Coptic receipt, issued by a man called Tiberius (likely 6th century). Photo courtesy Athribis-Projekt Tübingen.Archaeologists have unearthed more than 18,000 ostraca documenting the daily lives of Egyptians at the Ptolemaic city of Athribis 25 miles north of Cairo. It is the one of the largest finds of ostraca ever made in Egypt, comparable only to the great quantities discovered at Deir el-Medina (a planned town housing the workers of the pharaonic tombs in the Valley of the Kings with a well-paid and unusually literate population).

Potsherds were commonly used as a writing surface in antiquity because broken pottery was cheap and easily available. Writers used ink penned with a reed or scratched directly into the surface. This group is notable for their late date and for the sheer variety of documents.

Around 80 percent of the pot sherds are inscribed in Demotic, the common administrative script in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which developed from Hieratic after 600 BC. Among the second most common finds are ostraca with Greek script, but the team also came across inscriptions in Hieratic, hieroglyphic and – more rarely – Coptic and Arabic script.

They also discovered pictorial ostraca – a special category, says Christian Leitz. “These sherds show various figurative representations, including animals such as scorpions and swallows, humans, gods 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. A surprisingly large number of sherds could be assigned to an ancient school, the research team said. “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.” A three-digit number of ostraca also contain writing exercises that the team classifies as punishment: The sherds are inscribed with the same one or two characters each time, both on the front and back.

There is archaeological evidence of occupation at the site dating back to the Old Kingdom, perhaps as early the 25th century B.C., but the city of Athribis only came to prominence in the early Ptolemaic era when it was made capital of the tenth Lower Egyptian nome. Ptolemy XII began construction of the temple dedicated to the lion goddess Repit and her husband Min-Re in the 1st century B.C. It would take eight Roman emperors from Tiberius (r. 14-37) to Hadrian (r. 117-138) to complete it.

Starting in the early Ptolemaic era, Athribis had a thriving pottery industry that would still be producing through the late 4th century A.D., so the raw materials for ostraca were everywhere. The collection will now be analyzed and interpreted by an international team of researchers.

3 thoughts on “18,000 ostraca documenting daily life found in Egypt

  1. Yes, “extra work” may be have been imposed on those little Egyptians, but I likewise remember that –before any real writing– we had to undergo rather tedious, as it was back then referred to, “exercises in curving” as part of the normal program.

    –OK, I may not be THAT old (as we did not use any ostraka), but maybe as old as their “team”, and by the way seemingly of the same nationality 😆

  2. “Kemwer” was the name of the 10th Lower Egyptian ‘nome’ (or nomos), which extended in the southeastern Nile Delta from neighboring Bubastis (18th ‘nome’) to the border towns of Heliopolis and Cairo (13th), named after Kemwer, the deity of the dead.

    The capital bore the Egyptian name Hut-heri-ib – Ḥwt-ḥrj-jb (Kom el-Atrib, modern Tell_Atrib). In Ptolemaic times its name was Athribis/ Ἀθριβις, and accordingly, the nome was referred to as Athribis at that time.

    “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography”: A’thribis – “…stood upon the eastern bank of the Tanitic branch of the Nile, and near the angle where that branch diverges from the main stream. […] It was one of the military nomes assigned to the Calasirian militia under the Pharaohs. Under the Christian Emperors, it belonged to the province of Augustaomica Secunda…”.

    Herodotus 2.166: καλασιρίων δὲ οἵδε ἄλλοι νομοί εἰσι, Θηβαῖος, Βουβαστίτης, Ἀφθίτης, Τανίτης, Μενδήσιος, Σεβεννύτης, Ἀθριβίτης, Φαρβαϊθίτης, Θμουΐτης, Ὀνουφίτης, Ἀνύτιος, Μυεκφορίτης· οὗτος ὁ νομὸς ἐν νήσῳ οἰκέει ἀντίον Βουβάστιος πόλιος. οὗτοι δὲ οἱ νομοὶ Καλασιρίων εἰσί, γενόμενοι, ὅτε ἐπὶ πλείστους ἐγένοντο, πέντε καὶ εἴκοσι μυριάδες ἀνδρῶν. οὐδὲ τούτοισι ἔξεστι τέχνην ἐπασκῆσαι οὐδεμίαν, ἀλλὰ τὰ ἐς πόλεμον ἐπασκέουσι μοῦνα, παῖς παρὰ πατρὸς ἐκδεκόμενος.

    “The ‘nomes’ of the Calasirians are those of Thebes, Bubastis, Aphthis, Tanis, Mendes, Sebennytos, Athribis, Pharbaithos, Thmuis, Onuphis, Anytis, Myecphoris, the last ‘nome’ being an island opposite to the city of Bubastis. These are the Calasirian districts; and they reached, when most numerous, five-and-twenty myriads of men [i.e. 250.000 fellas]; Notably no art is lawful for them, other than those related to war, the son picks it up from his father.

    Therefore, in the 5th century BC, when Herodotus traveled the area, the “Calasirian” sons may have been “at war”, if not with orthography, maybe with bureaucracy. καλάσιρις = a long Egyptian garment [possibly worn by those “Calasirians“]


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