In the ancient Egyptian town of Athribis, close to the contemporary city of Sohag, Egypt, archaeologists from the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities have discovered a collection of more than 18,000 ostraca (inscribed pottery fragments). The artifacts record names, food and household item purchases, as well as school essays and purchases of other items.
They served as notepads for personal correspondence, shopping lists, purchase logs, and copies of literary masterpieces.A drawing made by a child on an ostracon.
By extension, the phrase is used to describe limestone flakes that were used for comparable reasons.
According to Professor Christian Leitz and his colleagues from the Athribis Project, an archaeological and philological investigation into the ancient Egyptian town of Athribis, “ostraca were used in large quantities as writing material in ancient times, inscribed with ink and a reed or hollow stick (calamus).”
In the Athribis ruins, the researchers discovered a collection of more over 18,000 ostraca.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.“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.
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.
“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.”