BMCR 2021.07.38

Using ostraca in the ancient world: New discoveries and methodologies

, , Using ostraca in the ancient world: New discoveries and methodologies. Materiale Textkulturen, 32. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. vi, 245. ISBN 9783110712865 $91.99.

Increasing attention has been paid in recent years to the materiality of books and documents. Ostraca, however, that is, sherds of pottery or flat stones used for all kinds of documents, and even literature, remain in general neglected, slipping between epigraphy and papyri. Hence the book here under review will be very welcome in the fields of papyrology, archaeology, ancient history, and Classics in general.

About one-third of the documents that have been found in Egypt are written on pottery or stone ostraca.  Until very recently, the medium was generally considered by scholars simply as a low-cost solution to the lack of papyrus: an opportunity medium.  But many ostraca show signs of having been written by professional or at least skillful scribes. Those scribes had a choice of media, and within ostraca they had a choice of specific shapes and materials, and applied specific techniques and uses.  Ignoring those choices and techniques is a lost opportunity for analysis, and jumbles together a large body of written production and cultural artifacts.

The earliest editions of texts from ostraca provided almost no analysis of the written object’s materiality, its archeological value, or of the scribal practices and choices that underlay its production. Tentative analysis and observations in more recent editions have shown some interest in the materiality of ostraca.  The studies in the present volume join and confirm this emerging trend, thoroughly and exhaustively exploiting that materiality in order to provide us with a much clearer picture of the use of ostraca in various subfields (Coptic studies, Demotic studies, literary texts, etc.), and opening new ways of looking at a widespread ancient medium and scribal practice.

The book is the result of a conference held in Heidelberg in 2017 under the aegis of the Heidelberg Ostraca Project (HOP), to which both editors belonged. The volume is structured in three sections: The first “Documentation and Interpretation of Ostraca as Archaeological Objects”; the second “Cultural Contexts and Practices”; and the third, “Ostraca in Context: Case studies.”  The arc is from the archeological context, to the written artifact, and finally to an exploration of textual genres and languages.

The three contributions in the first section, by Paola Davoli, Clementina Caputo and Adam Bülow-Jacobsen, provide methodological approaches from three points of view, all of them resulting from the broad experience of their authors. Both Davoli and Caputo have already published a large number of works based on their practice in the field. Their chapters in this book distill this experience, offer extensive surveys, and provide conclusions that open new perspectives in ostracology. Bülow-Jacobsen has a lifelong experience in photographing papyrological materials (in the wider meaning of papyrology, which includes ostraca, wooden objects, and metal lamellae) and provides here an invaluable guide for papyrologists in the increasingly inevitable task of imaging the artifacts and texts for publication.

Davoli tackles the important topic of archaeological context. In excavations throughout the twentieth century, the growing interest in ostraca translated into the rescue of a growing numbers of these written sherds. During the “papyrus rage”, expeditions to Oxyrhynchus and other sites may have overlooked ostraca, but comparatively recent excavations have unearthed massive quantities of these objects, and interest in archaeological context has given them an enhanced value. Davoli’s contribution examines the question of ostraca (and papyri) as archeological artifacts and offers basic methodological lines that can orient studies of formation processes and help us  understand documents within their finding spots, goals that often require, interdisciplinary research and collaboration. She also provides a practical approach, based on her own experience at Soknopaiou Nesos (Fayum) and Trimithis in the Dakhla Oasis.

Caputo offers a different perspective on sherds as artifacts, though also from the archeological point of view, namely the connection of pottery with scribal practice. She demonstrates that the choice of ceramic as an alternative to other media such as papyrus was not casual. Her observations on large samples of documents in different sites have shown that there was a trend to use specific kinds of vessels more than others:  scribes chose pots or jars with specific qualities (surface, color, shape) that made inscription easier and more durable. She has also observed that serial production of certain documents, such as tax receipts, tags, and labels (in trade) could not depend on the casual finding of sherds adequate in size and shape for the recording of the documents. Most probably scribes had large sherds or even whole discarded pots that they conveniently cut and tailored to meet scribal needs. Mechanical cutting by a practiced scribe probably produced similarly shaped and sized sherds. Although the variation in quality and shape might seem notorious, there is some regularity observed in the patterns when one looks at certain documents of a precise period and place. To prove this point, she offers the results of her own experience cutting sherds with different instruments in an effort to reproduce and understand ancient practice. Such work is crucial to our reconstruction of the labor of scribes.

Bülow Jacobsen brings his decades-long experience in photographing papyri, ostraca, and wooden tablets to his chapter. Though he opens with the caveat that he is not a professional photographer, he has impressive experience that he shares in very accessible language, explicating the types of technologies available and best applicable to different kinds of texts. He starts with the objects themselves, explaining the different kinds of supports and inks, and offering a general view of the methods most appropriate to each, distinguishing as well between the production of useable photos for research versus publishable photos. The goal in the case of both papyri and ostraca is legibility.  Hence what the photographer desires from all these technologies is the production of enough contrast between background and ink to obtain the most legible text. Sections ‘Setup’, ‘focusing and exposure’ and ‘light’ survey traditional to ultra-modern techniques (RTI, DStretch) considering the circumstances in which photographs are taken (in an archeological dig, in a museum), the light used (daylight or artificial light), and providing brief explanations of infrared, Red, Color, Blue, UV, and Multispectral imaging.

The second section contains two papers. Ben Haring poses the question of whether archeology is truly representing scribal practice for the Pharaonic period, given the relative paucity of ostraca in most sites and periods vs the large amounts of New Kingdom ostraca from Thebes. Perhaps Thebes is exceptional, due to the greater availability of flat stones resulting from extensive tomb and temple construction activity in the Theban mountains, or to a hypothetically higher local literacy. These are very interesting questions that can perhaps be answered through a more thorough analysis of the materials.

In the second contribution, and focusing on the genre of texts, Julia Lougovaya surveys the ostraca containing literary and paraliterary texts. Starting from Mertens’s pioneering catalog of literary ostraca, Julia Lougovaya proposes a less restrictive analysis of a body of texts that includes both magical, medical, biblical texts, oracle tickets, texts related to Christian worship, and school texts. This approach triples the sample and gives a more accurate picture of literary practice involving ostraca. The section on Christian worship, for example, summarizes very compellingly the latest reconstructions in the use of ostraca in worship and proposes explanations for the choice of format and material in activities such as memorization training. School texts, first studied from the material point of view by Raffaella Cribiore, are also featured in this chapter, where the survey includes the different types of exercise or scholarly texts written on ostraca. She closes the chapter with an appendix containing the edition of a sherd from Dydimoi in the Eastern desert, containing an apparently literary text.

The third section contains four papers, with four case studies organized chronologically.  Each of these case studies raises interesting methodological questions within its own subfield.

Margaretha Folmer opens the section with a survey of the Aramaic letter ostraca from Elephantine. The papyrus Aramaic archive from Elephantine is justly famous and has cast a shadow on any other Aramaic documents from the area or from Egypt. The magnificent contracts, agreements, and letters in that archive contribute so much to our understanding of the life of the Jewish and Aramaic settlements in Elephantine and Aswan that the considerably shorter texts contained in the small sherds seem to pale in comparison. The ostraca, however, provide a different perspective, that of more ephemeral texts in less formal style and attesting to a more intimate and unrestrained environment (the author draws a parallel to our Whatsapp). Folmer analyzes the epistolary characteristics of letter-ostraca and compares them to those of the papyrus documents.

Marie-Pierre Chaufray and Bérangère Redon present three case studies, based on the finds of recent excavations of the French mission in the Eastern Desert (in Samut North and Bi’r Samut). Because the sites are quite limited in terms of extension and chronology, they provide an excellent opportunity to analyze the relationship of the more than 1200 ostraca to the stratigraphy of the site. An ideal example of the effectiveness of this collaborative work is the section on the “ostracon of the miracle” (pp. 174-176). This ostracon letter attests to a sudden heavy rain that filled a well, which is specifically given a date to the seventh year of a Ptolemaic monarch: either Ptolemy the III or the IV. The analysis of the archeological context in which the letter was found helps to assign the miraculous rain to the seventh year of Ptolemy the IV, 215 BCE, based on stratigraphy and the knowledge of the findspot.

Sandra Lippert and Maren Schentuleit are well known for their collaboration in massive editions of Demotic materials from Dime (Soknopaiou Nesos). In their contribution to this volume, they create a continuation to the introduction set by Davoli (on archeology) and Caputo (on the choice of sherds) with an analysis of the demotic materials at Soknopaiou Nesos and Hut Repit, presented in the context of the total finds of texts in any language at the site (p. 186, and 189) and widely among other manifestations of Demotic texts in the area (dipinti and wall inscriptions at Hut Repit). Lippert[1] had already called attention in 2010 to the fact that looking at only Greek texts from sites does not provide the complete picture (with the example of Soknopaiou Nesos, where Greek documents lack reference to temple life that Demotic documents provide). In this paper, the authors foreground the value of the Demotic texts and analyze text types and regular formulas with abundant examples.

Cromwell’s contribution contains a wealth of crucial methodological questions. Although she focuses mainly on Thebes, her methodological observations can be applied to further bodies of texts, be it ostraca or other written artifacts. Some of these questions are about provenance, findspots, or place of writing. One very interesting question is the terminological distinctions in the original language about the materials and the act of writing, which involves the perception of the ancient authors of these texts about their own activity. Cromwell discusses the surprising fact that pharaonic ceramics were used, hundreds and even thousands of years later, for tax receipts in the Early Arab period by Coptic scribes. She attempts a reconstruction of the scribes’ procedure, including the possibility that they had to commute on purpose to a specific dump site to find the necessary materials for their trade. This fact connects and confirms Caputo’s point about the scribes’ conscious choices of specific sherds and pots. Cromwell includes, as does Lougovaya, text editions of three ostraca in an appendix, from the collection of Columbia University.

Much of this volume consists of a survey of new materials and discussions on methodological questions, and precisely for this reason it is ground-breaking. It collects a large number of case studies, some of them of very recently excavated materials, and offers a plethora of hitherto unoffered observations about corpora of ostraca. Often, collective books present heterogeneous materials, difficult to reconcile. In this case, however, there is a conscious effort to bring together the needed methodologies to make progress in a specific field. A common line runs through all the chapters, one that brings together the interests and skills of scholars from different academic fields (archaeology, ceramology, Demotic studies, literary studies, Coptic, Egyptology) into a highly productive interdisciplinary collaboration. Further research on scribal practice and ostraca will require further exhaustive examination of large corpora in specific case studies, as this book proves, as well as collaboration between specialists in pottery, in texts, in archaeology, and in other fields. There is an exciting future for these kinds of studies, and in that future this book will count as pioneering.


[1] Lippert, Sandra (2010), “Seeing the Whole Picture – Why reading Greek Texts from Soknopaiou Nesos is not Enough”, in Traianos Gagos (ed.), Proceedings of the 25th International Congress of Papyrology, Ann Arbor, July 29–August 4, 2007 (ASP), Ann Arbor, 427–434.