Ostraca (plural for ostracon) are pottery fragments used as surfaces for writing or drawing.
An ostracon with a child’s drawing.
By extension, the term is applied to flakes of limestone which were employed for similar purposes.
“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 endeavour investigating the ancient Egyptian town of Athribis.
“These ostraca provide a variety of insights into the everyday life of Athribis,” they said.
“Around 80% of the potsherds are inscribed in Demotic, the common administrative script in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which developed from Hieratic after 600 BCE.”
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,” they said.
“A surprisingly large number of sherds could be assigned to an ancient school.”
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.
“Several hundreds of ostraca also contain writing exercises that we classified as punishment,” they added.
“They are inscribed with the same one or two characters each time, both on the front and back.”