18,000 Inscribed Pot Sherds Document Daily Life in Ancient Egyptian City of Athribis

Archaeologists have recovered more than 18,000 inscribed sherds in ancient Athribis—the remains of vessels and jars that served as writing material some 2,000 years ago.

The artifacts, known as ostraca, document the lists of names, the purchase of food and everyday objects, and even writings from an ancient school that includes lines written by its pupils as punishment.

Ostraca (plural for ostracon) are pottery fragments used as surfaces for writing or drawing.

They were used as notepads for private letters, laundry lists, records of purchases, and copies of literary works.

By extension, the term is applied to flakes of limestone which were employed for similar purposes.

Fragment of a hieroglyphic inscription with information on local mythology
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.

“In ancient times, ostraca were used in large quantities as writing material, inscribed with ink and a reed or hollow stick (calamus),” explained Professor Christian Leitz, a researcher with the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, and his colleagues from the Athribis Project, an archaeological and philological endeavor investigating the ancient Egyptian town of Athribis.

The archeologists uncovered a collection of more than 18,000 ostraca in the ruins of Athribis.

“These ostraca provide a variety of insights into the everyday life of Athribis,” they said.

Around 80% of the pot sherds are inscribed in Demotic, the common administrative script in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods which developed from Hieratic after 600 BC. Among the second most common finds are ostraca with Greek script, but the team also came across inscriptions in Hieratic, hieroglyphic and – more rarely – Coptic and Arabic script.

An ostracon with child’s drawing.
Naughty 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. A surprisingly large number of sherds could be assigned to an ancient school, the research team said. “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.”

A three-digit number of ostraca also contain writing exercises that the team classifies as punishment: The sherds are inscribed with the same one or two characters each time, both on the front and back.