BMCR 2005.07.10

Greek Ostraca from Kellis: O.Kellis, Nos. 1-293. With a chapter on the ostraka and the archaeology of Ismant el-Kharab by Colin A. Hope. Dakhleh Oasis Project: Monograph 13

, Interpreting visual ethnography texts, photos and the construction of sociological meanings. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2004. XIII, 190 Seiten Illustrationen 24 cm. ISBN 9781472473400 ((hbk.) £115.00). 1-84217-128-3.

Thousands of inscribed ostraca have been recovered from Egyptian sites over the past century but have often failed to receive the scholarly attention they deserve, in part because of poor-quality or inaccessible publications. This excellent volume should go some distance towards remedying that problem.

For the purposes of this and similar publications, “ostraca” refers primarily to inscribed pot-sherds, but also on occasion to other inscribed objects, including in the case of this volume a piece of wood. Classicists often associate the term with the famous deposits of ostraca in the Athenian agora; these classical ostraca are typically inscribed only with the name of a candidate for ostracism, though the Athenians could also write on pot-sherds for other purposes. In Greek Egypt, however, ostraca were used for letters, orders, receipts, and a wide range of other documents. While papyri are more numerous and on average contain longer texts, ostraca provide more evidence than papyri for certain types of text (e.g. writing in Latin in Roman Egypt).

The texts published in this volume are, for ostraca, relatively substantial. They range from lengthy accounts with as much as 17 lines of text (O.Kell. 98) to fragments containing only a single word; representatives of the latter category, however, are few, as illegible and uninformative texts were excluded from the volume as a matter of editorial policy (p. 1). The ostraca tend to be more complete than similar documents on papyrus and are generally comprehensible. They date from the second, third, and fourth centuries AD, roughly the same period as the papyri from this site (ancient Kellis, modern Ismant el-Kharab). All are in Greek; some Coptic ostraca were discovered in the Kellis excavations but have not been published, and no ostraca in other languages were found. Portions of some of these texts were previously published in P.Kell.IV G 96, but the majority receive their first edition in this volume.

Most of the ostraca fall into a few well-defined categories: tax receipts (51 texts), other receipts and orders (43 texts), accounts (29 texts), lists of personal names (14 texts), and jar dockets (small inscribed tags pressed into the clay of an amphora stopper while it was still wet; 55 texts). Letters, contracts, school texts, and astrological texts are also represented, but in much smaller quantities. Representative texts include “I received through you, Psais son of Mour, one chicken. I, Gaius, have signed.” (O.Kell. 61) and “Karox to Psais and to Tithoes and his brothers greetings; quickly after receiving my letter give to your brother Stonius two artabs of dates. But don’t neglect (to do this). I from my side am already on my way to visit you, especially because of your uncertain situation.” (O.Kell. 289)

As editions of ostraca go, this one is of high quality. The texts are carefully transcribed, and each is provided with an English translation, discussion, and notes. The information provided with each text is on the whole generous by the standards of similar publications, except that dates are not routinely given; all dates are listed separately on pp. 220-6, but that fact is not made clear enough for casual users (comments such as “as the date of the ostrakon (see below) seems fairly late” (p. 124) are not adequate). There is good cross-referencing between discussions of the different texts, and the introduction summarizes the main contributions of these ostraca to our knowledge of the history, culture, and prosopography of the area. Attention to their linguistic contributions is conspicuously lacking, so there is a good opportunity here for an article by an enterprising classical linguist. An informative essay on the archaeological aspect of the ostraca, including detailed information on their physical composition, provides interesting information often neglected from collections of texts and is complemented by maps of the excavation showing the find sites of different groups of ostraca.

The explanatory material provided is concise and assumes a fairly high level of knowledge and attention on the part of readers. The entire section on jar dockets, for example, contains no information on what a jar docket is, even though the term is bound to be unfamiliar to most readers (even the editor had not encountered one until he began work on the Kellis material); the only explanation of their nature is in a footnote in the introduction (p. 4). Likewise dekania lists are discussed without any explanation of the meaning of the term.

The organization of texts in the volume is generally logical, with similar topics grouped together. The exception is a group of 25 “additional texts” (nos. 269-293) at the end of the volume; these include ostraca of all categories and indeed some of the most interesting texts in the collection. They are segregated in this fashion because their photographs were made available to the editors very late in the editorial process. Because the rest of the volume is arranged largely in order of declining interest (first the substantive texts, then the jar dockets, then the texts for which only a description can be given), incautious readers may miss these additional texts.

The volume contains nearly 50 pages of plates, including high-quality photographs of most of the texts included. The photographs are also given in pdf format on a CD included with the book and can therefore be enlarged, manipulated, and easily shared among readers with the appropriate equipment (no information is provided on what that equipment would be, and the CD did not work with this reviewer’s CD drive, but the principle is nevertheless an excellent one). The result of such a generous provision of the raw data behind this volume is that any reader with the proper training can check the transcriptions offered here and come to his or her own conclusions; this is an excellent feature and one rarely found in other editions, and it is to be hoped that the precedent set here will be followed. It is however a pity that it is precisely the texts of which substantial portions are described as illegible that are omitted from the photographic database.

The book is well produced, with no typographical errors that I could find. The layout of the texts, translations, and commentaries is clear and makes the Greek easy to follow, and a wealth of headings and subheadings makes it almost impossible to get lost. The table of contents, introduction, and indices make it easy to find what one is looking for, and the binding is made to last. This last is important, because this edition of the Kellis ostraca will be consulted regularly for many years to come.