BMCR 2020.08.16

Die Ostraka vom Kerameikos

, Die Ostraka vom Kerameikos. Kerameikos, 20. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2018. 1394 p.. ISBN 9783954903276 €220,00.

This two-volume work publishes over 9000 ostraka—inscribed potsherds used as ballots in the Athenian process of ostracism—excavated between 1910 and 2005 in the Kerameikos of Athens. The ostraka found before the Second World War are included, although they were already published in volume 3 of the Kerameikos excavation series. More significant, and the main interest for most readers, are the roughly 8500 ostraka discovered between 1966 and 1969. These ostraka, generally described as the Great Kerameikos Deposit (“der große Kerameikosfund”) or more simply the Great Deposit (“der große Hortfund”), had been used as fill in an abandoned channel of the Eridanos river around the time of the construction of the Themistoklean city walls. Although some information about them was published at the time of discovery, more details started to emerge only in the 1990s. Stefan Brenne was assigned responsibility for publishing the ostraka in 1995, and his publications since then have been the chief source of information about the Kerameikos finds. Most important are two works that came out in 2001 and 2002, which drew heavily on the unpublished ostraka and cast considerable light on their contents.[1] They included, however, texts of only a small number of ostraka, and illustrations of even fewer. With this contribution to the Kerameikos series, complete texts and illustrations of virtually all Kerameikos ostraka are now available for study.

The publication takes the form of a final excavation report. As such, its focus is not simply the texts on ostraka but also their archaeological contexts and physical characteristics. Volume 1 starts with a short preface (pp. XVII-XVII) that helpfully explains the long delay between discovery of the Great Deposit and its publication. Chapter 1 is also introductory. It describes how to use the two volumes, outlines the methodology applied in presenting both texts and illustrations, and supplies a list of works cited. Chapter 2 reviews the findspots and stratigraphy of all Kerameikos ostraka. Its core is a catalogue of 96 ostraka groups, arranged by provenience. A majority belong to the Great Deposit; they range in size from 1 to 2437 sherds. The entry for each group reports its findspot or stratigraphic layer, lists the ostraka (by candidate name and catalogue number) found in it, and mentions related ostraka from other groups (as shown by joins, physically-related sherds, or similarities in writing). The most striking takeaway is that ostraka for a very small number of candidates (Megakles and Themistokles above all) appear in multiple layers (Table 3, p. 40). A brief but useful chronological overview surveys the dates (pre-471, 471, 443?, 416?) to which most Kerameikos ostraka can be assigned.

Chapter 3 examines the pottery and ceramic objects from which the sherds used as ostraka derived. Brenne divides these into 15 categories, ranging from fine and household wares to lamps and roof tiles. Many categories are further divided into subcategories based on specific shape. Vessels types and shapes are preceded by brief introductions, followed by lists of ostraka representing variations of each. With Chapter 4 the volume turns to issues raised by the texts of the Kerameikos ostraka. The topics covered are vast: preparation of sherds for writing, layout and direction of texts, corrections and erasures, abbreviated spellings, and numerous phonological and morphological features. Discussion is usually limited and often consists of a simple list of ostraka illustrating a particular feature. Chapter 5 is comprised of three brief sections listing ostraka whose texts or decoration appear to comment on the candidates they name. The first section catalogues 111 ostraka on which voters added negative remarks about a candidate, perhaps to highlight the motives behind their votes. The second section lists eight ostraka with added figural graffiti that, like the textual remarks of the first section, seem to allude to a moral defect associated with their candidates. The final section identifies 39 ostraka prepared in such a way that some of their original red- or black-figured decoration remain visible, perhaps because the voter linked that decoration to the candidate named on the sherd.

Chapter 6 (pp. 131-231) is the longest and most substantial. It consists of three Group-catalogues (“Gruppenkataloge”), each of which is comprised of groups of ostraka whose texts or sherds are related to one another. The 503 groups of Group-catalogue A are made up of groups of ostraka that join one another or display another feature indicating their origin in the same pot. Group-catalogue B features 28 groups of ostraka with similar writing but from different vessels. Group-catalogue C catalogues 320 ostraka whose surfaces preserve two different texts, one of which is usually incomplete. In some of these latter cases a voter may have started to write one name, only to change his mind and write out another name in full. More often the same name appears twice, and the first attempt is left unfinished, often because of a mistake. In a smaller number of instances the meaning of one of the texts is unclear and perhaps preserves an older text wholly unrelated to ostracism.

After several concordances and illustration credits the remainder of Volume 1 is occupied by illustrations. These include profile drawings of select vessels from Chapter 3; photographs, cross-sections, and a plan of the area in which the ostraka of the Great Deposit were excavated; and 397 pages of plates illustrating, by line drawings or black-and-white photographs (and occasionally both), the 9367 ostraka included in the main catalogue.

That catalogue, arranged alphabetically by candidate, appears in Volume 2. A brief biographical summary introduces each candidate, after which the relevant ostraka are grouped according to the different combinations of the nomenclature (name, patronymic, demotic) recorded on each sherd. The catalogue entry for each ostrakon starts with a brief account of its physical features, followed by its Greek text(s) and a brief commentary on distinctive textual features. Where applicable, mention is also made of additional comments found on a sherd, related ostraka (i.e., ones from the same vessel or written in the same or a similar hand), and significant references to the ostrakon in earlier publications.

Brenne states in the preface (p. XVII) that he was able to touch only briefly on many topics, so that the primary goal of the work is to support further study. He achieves that goal and more. What merits particular mention, and what makes this publication especially useful, is its copious illustrations. Virtually every catalogued ostrakon is illustrated in some way.[2]

Space prevents Brenne from offering detailed discussion of many topics. Readers interested in the individual candidates named on Kerameikos ostraka, for example, can find fuller biographical information in Brenne’s prosopograpical study published in 2001.[3] That same work also analyzes the use of demotics and patronymics on ostraka and the geographic origins of candidates, questions barely touched on here.[4] Even so, one can now test Brenne’s previous conclusions against the texts of the ostraka themselves, revise them if necessary, or offer new interpretations. Similarly the ostraka with added comments and figural decoration listed in Chapter 5 are nearly identical with those published by Brenne in 2002. The lists as published here make for more convenient starting points, but the earlier, more detailed analyses of both practices remain essential reading.[5]

On other issues the two volumes supply welcome new details. The presence of joins between many of the ostraka found within the Great Deposit was observed already at the time of discovery, and their existence has been the principal reason for supposing that the fill was the product of a single event.[6] Only now can we appreciate the extent and nature of those joins, thanks to Group-catalogue A of Chapter 5: more than ten percent of the ostraka of the Great Deposit, or 1014 pieces, either join with or come from the same pot as another ostrakon. Those numbers, and the fact that joining ostraka were found across multiple stratigraphic layers (as demonstrated in Chapter 2), all but prove that the vast majority of ostraka in the Great Deposit came from a single ostrakophoria, whose dating to spring 471 is now generally accepted.[7]This fixed point is of considerable importance. It does not establish the date of manufacture of any pot or other object that supplied an ostrakon, but it does demonstrate that they were already in use by that year, making Brenne’s survey of the pottery of ostraka (Chapter 3) all the more valuable for specialists in fifth-century Attic pottery. The same is true of the distinct linguistic features catalogued in Chapter 5. Parallels for most can be found in Leslie Threatte’s Grammar of Attic Inscriptions (1980), but the newly published texts significantly increase many of the examples cited there.

Noteworthy as well is the new evidence for ostraka with texts written by the same or similar hand, as laid out in Group-catalogues A and B of Chapter 6.[8] Brenne is keenly aware of the challenges involved in identifying individual writers on ostraka, and he lays out in detail criteria that ought to govern comparisons of writing on different sherds. He moreover suggests several possible scenarios for the creation of groups of ostraka by single individuals (pp. 201-3). His methods and approach should form the basis of all future work.

The publication also brings attention to features that have received limited attention in earlier studies of Athenian ostraka from either the Kerameikos or elsewhere. Only a few examples can be listed here. Brenne identifies several ostraka that preserve traces of strokes below the names that formed their final texts, as if some individuals practiced before composing their final ballots (p. 88). He further documents variations in the arrangement and layout of texts on individual sherds, such as the presence of stoichedon writing (usually in limited form) (p. 90) and an unexpectedly high number of texts written from bottom to top (p. 90). Curious too is a layout that Brenne describes as “Isometrie,” in which the first and last letters of two lines align vertically, even when they themselves contain different numbers of letters (pp. 90, 97). These topics and others invite more detailed study.[9]

Fifty years have passed since the discovery of the ostraka of the Great Kerameikos Deposit. This long-anticipated publication does them full justice. It will engage not only specialists in ostracism but anyone interested in the archaeology, history, and language of fifth-century Athens for years to come.


[1] Stefan Brenne, Ostrakismos und Prominenz in Athen, Tyche Supplement 3 (Vienna 2001); Stefan Brenne, “Die Ostraka (487 – ca. 416 v. Chr.) als Testimonien (T 1),” in Peter Siewert (ed.), Ostrakismos-Testimonien I, Historia Einzelschriften 155 (Stuttgart, 2002). Brenne reviews earlier research on the Great Kerameikos Deposit in Ostrakismos und Prominenz, 31-2.

[2] By contrast, the comparable volume on ostraka in the Athenian Agora series (M. Lang, Ostraka, The Athenian Agora 25 [Princeton, 1991]) provides illustrations for approximately one-third of its 1145 catalogued pieces.

[3] Brenne, Ostrakismos und Prominenz, pp. 87-314; cf. also Brenne, Die Ostraka (487 – ca. 416 v. Chr.) als Testimonien (T 1),” pp. 46-71.

[4] Brenne, Ostrakismos und Prominenz, pp. 73-86, 416-31.

[5] Brenne, “Die Ostraka (487 – ca. 416 v. Chr.) als Testimonien (T 1),” pp. 80-166.

[6] Brenne, “Die Ostraka (487 – ca. 416 v. Chr.) als Testimonien (T 1),” pp. 72-6, with references to earlier works.

[7] Brenne addresses the date of the Great Deposit on pp. 43-4; for more detail, see Ostrakismos und Prominenz, pp. 30-48.

[8] For a preliminary discussion, with references to earlier scholarship, see Brenne, “Die Ostraka (487 – ca. 416 v. Chr.) als Testimonien (T 1),” pp. 77-80.

[9] Comparison with layouts found on contemporary vase and stone inscriptions should be especially fruitful. Catherine M. Keesling, “The Marathon Casualty List from Eua-Loukou and the Plinthedon Style in Attic Inscriptions,” ZPE 180 (2012): 139-48, provides a good overview.