This book publishes and describes 1446 ostraca that were found during excavations at Abu Mina, that “religious tourist attraction” (P. van Minnen in Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-700 Cambridge 2007, p. 207), forty kilometers southwest of Alexandria. Of these 1088 receive full treatment with diplomatic transcription and references to the scribe and form of the document (but no translation), while the remaining 358 ostraca only receive a brief description, most of which were provided by the people who prepared an initial edition of this material, Patrick Robinson and Georgina Fantoni.
The actual presentation of the Greek text of the ostraca is preceded by a long and detailed introduction (pp. 1-78) in which the editor discusses various aspects such as the format and terminology of these texts, the different hands that can be distinguished (quite impressive in its details), and the people who can be seen in action in the ostraca. At the end of the book follow a concordance of inventory numbers with catalogue numbers, a useful bibliography, indices (but see below), and 35 black and white plates of 107 ostraca thought to be representative of the various hands that the editor distinguishes (all images may be available online at a later stage).
All but three of the ostraca were found in the so-called “Ostraca House” in Abu Mina during several digging seasons between 1986 and 1995. As is made clear by the inventory numbers (summarily explained in footnote 4 on page 2), there were several trenches in this house, but for the archaeological significance of this we will have to wait for the archaeological publication of this house by Peter Grossmann, although it would have been helpful if some more detailed archaeological information about this interesting house would have been included in the present volume.
The ostraca, most of which do not mention a specific date, can on paleographical grounds be dated to the first half of the seventh century CE. They thus date from the period that saw the important historical events of the Persian attack of 619 CE and the subsequent Arab conquest in 642 CE.
With a handful of exceptions (among which two possible sub-literary texts, which interestingly were both not from the Ostraca House), the ostraca all deal with grape harvests and wine production. The editor distinguishes and discusses several different formats in the introduction (pp. 7-15), most prominent among which are receipts of grapes (in donkey and camel loads) from individuals and orders to provide wine (in kollatha, see p. 11) to individuals.
As usual, the little information contained in individual ostraca (most of them consist of on average ten, often abbreviated, Greek words) only becomes really interesting through the sheer number of texts from the same locale. We now have the names of more than 300 individuals whose names occur in the ostraca, sometimes with personal or occupational information, who are active in Abu Mina. At the same time, the various numbers of donkey and camel loads of grapes mentioned allow some analysis of economic activity in Abu Mina during this very interesting period from the Persian occupation to the Arab invasion.
Unfortunately, with the format chosen by the editor (to have all discussion in the general introduction and almost no discussion of problems and interesting points connected with each individual text), the reader is often at a loss. Specifically, the link between the introduction (where texts figure with their long inventory number), and the catalog of texts (with individual numbers) does not make it easy for a reader to make the connection between the interesting data individual texts provide and the actual text itself. In addition, it is impossible to get the full picture for each text, as different aspects are discussed in separate sections of the introduction without any attempt to cross-reference.
What makes the book even more difficult to peruse is the lack of detailed indices. For one thing, as may be clear from the previous paragraph, it would have been helpful to have an index of inventory numbers to make clear where a particular text was discussed in the introduction without having to go on a fishing expedition only to find that nothing interesting is to be found. But even more detailed indices for persons and occupations would have been helpful. Now the reader is referred to the sections in the introduction, but an introduction serves a different purpose than an index. And compiling an index provides that welcome opportunity to have a final look at the manuscript, and make sure that everything is actually there. This is especially important in cases like the present book, which are the result of several scholars’ work. To give one example, the entry Amon subdeacon (p. 49) lists 8612 C927 as one of the five texts where this man figures. A check of the concordance, p. 315, reveals that this text is no. 602 in the catalog, which the reader will find on p. 200. Unfortunately, Amon is not here; the text mentions Theodoros deacon. Understandably, however, this text does not feature in the list of texts mentioning that man. If indices would have been compiled from the texts, this mistake would have been caught.
In sum, I found this a frustrating book. But let me be clear, not for the competence of the editor, who has done a magnificent job getting the texts together and suggesting all the interesting vistas that these texts offer (and there really are many). Rather, frustrated with the editorial process (where were the series editors?) that managed to completely obscure all that these texts have to offer for this very important period in Egyptian history.