A loanword from Greek, in which it means “shell” or “sherd,” ostracon is used in epigraphy to describe generally small inscriptions on shells, irregular pieces of stone, and, most frequently, sherds. Inscriptions were mostly written with ink on these hard materials, although there are a few incised ostraca. In principle, there is a distinction between an ostracon and an inscription on a vessel. In the latter case, there is generally a connection between the inscription and the vessel or its content, such as, perhaps, the name of its owner, its content, place, and date of production. In Egypt and in Palestine occasionally complete jars seem also to have been used for writing exercises. [See Kuntillet ῾Ajrud.]

The main reason for using sherds was that they were plentiful and cost nothing. However, using such objects presented difficulties: they were relatively heavy and they were difficult to store because they are irregular in shape. In fact, they were mainly used to write provisional notes, administrative lists, short messages, or drafts that could later be copied or registered on leather or papyrus scrolls—though they could be used for official messages when papyrus was unavailable. [See Papyrus; Parchment; Writing Materials.] They were also used for school exercises, and, in Egypt at least, for drafts of drawings and sculptures (e.g., at Khirbet el-Medineh).

Because most ostraca were inscribed in ink, they were generally connected with the use of a calamus (rush or reed) to write a linear script. They were therefore unusual and found late in Mesopotamia and Anatolia where cuneiform writing dominated but found frequently in Egypt and in the Levant, especially after the development of alphabetic writing (Canaanite, Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, and, later, Greek and Arabic).

Egypt can be considered the homeland of ostraca, with thousands of Hieratic, Demotic, Greek, and Coptic ostraca, not to mention hundreds of Phoenician and Aramaic ostraca found mainly at Saqqara and Elephantine and dating mostly from the Persian period. [See Saqqara; Elephantine.] Those ostraca throw a vivid light on everyday life, with its economical and daily problems. They also contain numerous schoolboys' exercises, including excerpts of literary texts.

In the Levant, scribes chose sherds that were as flat as possible—mainly body sherds from large jars. They sometimes cut or broke them to get a rectangular shape that is easy to hold in the left hand (e.g., in the Elyashib archives at Arad, ostraca are about 5–8 × 7–12 cm). [See Arad Inscriptions.] However, there are also very small ostraca of a few centimeters—labels of sorts—and others as large as a modern sheet of paper (e.g., about 21.5 × 28 cm; see Lemaire and Vernus, 1983), or even larger (42 × 60 cm for the Aššur ostracon; see below). [See Aššur.] They could be inscribed on both sides, the convex side generally written on first. [See Scribes and Scribal Techniques; Writing and Writing Systems.]

Excavations in Israel have produced various kinds or groups of ostraca in addition to a few in Greek and Arabic:

  • 1. Hieratic. A few hieratic ostraca have been found in Late Bronze Age strata, mainly at Tell ed-Duweir/Lachish and Tell esh-Shari'a (cf. Goldwasser, 1991). [See Lachish.]
  • 2. “Canaanite” or “Proto-Hebrew.” Ostraca from the Iron Age I, an abecedary and a list of names in Canaanite or Proto-Hebrew, have been found at ῾Izbet Ṣarṭah (Kochavi, 1977) and Beth-Shemesh. [See ῾Izbet Ṣarṭah; Beth-Shemesh.]
  • 3. Philistine. Several ostraca of Philistine origin have been found at Tell Jemmeh. They contain lists of names and date to the seventh century BCE (cf. Naveh, 1985). [See Jemmeh, Tell.]
  • 4. Paleo-Hebrew. Many Iron Age II Paleo-Hebrew ostraca, mainly from Samaria, Jerusalem, Lachish, Meṣad Ḥashavyahu, Arad, and Khirbet Ghazza/Ḥorvat ῾Uza, are connected with the royal administration of the kingdoms of Israel (for the Samaria ostraca) and Judah (for the others). The latter, dating mainly to about 600 BCE, illuminate the administrative and military organization, as well as the people's state of mind, on the eve of the fall of Judah. [See Samaria; Jerusalem; Meṣad Ḥashavyahu.]
  • 5. Ammonite. Various ostraca inscribed in Ammonite, generally from the seventh–sixth centuries BCE, have been found in central Transjordan, at Ḥesban/Heshbon, Tell el-Mazar, and Tell el-῾Umeiri. They are either lists of names or are practically illegible. However, ostracon 3 from Tell el-Mazar is a letter of Palt to his brother. [See Ḥesban; Mazar, Tell el-; ῾Umeiri, Tell el-.]
  • 6. Edomite. A few small ostraca written in Edomite in about 600 BCE have been found at Umm el-Biyara, Buṣeirah, Tell el-Kheleifeh, and in the Negev; the most interesting is a letter found at Khirbet Ghazza/Ḥorvat ῾Uza with a greeting formula mentioning the god Qos. [See Umm el-Biyara; Buṣeirah; Kheleifeh, Tell el-; Negev.]
  • 7. Aramaic. During the Persian period, Aramaic became the administrative language of Palestine. Aramaic ostraca have been found in Cisjordan and Transjordan, the two main collections being from Arad and Beersheba. Several hundred new Aramaic ostraca have recently appeared on the market. [See Aramaic Language and Literature; Beersheba; Idumeans.]
  • 8. Aramaic and Greek. A Hellenistic bilingual ostracon, in Aramaic and Greek, was discovered at Khirbet el-Qom (cf. Geraty, 1975, 1981). A dated marriage contract, probably an exercise, was found recently at Mareshah (Kloner and Eshel, 1994). [See Qom, Khirbet el-; Mareshah.]
  • 9. Square Hebrew and Aramaic. Early Roman ostraca written in Hebrew and Aramaic in a square script have been found at a number of sites: Qumran, Masada, Murabba῾at, and Herodium. Some were writing exercises—abecedaries or lists of names—while others were simply tags with letter(s) or name(s). [See Qumran; Masada; Murabba῾at; Herodium.]

So far, only a few ostraca have been found in Phoenicia: a small collection of seven ostraca was found in the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon (cf. Vanel, 1967, 1969; Betlyon, 1973) and a single ostracon was found at Tell el-Fukhar/Akko (Dothan, 1985), dating to the Persian period. [See Sidon; Akko.]

In Mesopotamia, ostraca are generally rare, late, and connected with the use of Aramaic (cf. Röllig, 1990) and eventually of Greek. However, the large Aššur ostracon (Donner and Röllig 1966–1969, no. 233; Gibson, 1975, no. 20, pp. 98–110) was written by an Assyrian official at the time of the revolt of Shamash-shum-ukin (c. 650 BCE); it shows that Aramaic was already being used between Assyrian officials. In fact, another ostracon, found at Nimrud and containing a list of probably Ammonite names, may be even earlier; it is dated on paleographic grounds to the end of the eighth century BCE. [See Nimrud; Ammonite Inscriptions.] The number of these ostraca pales against the some three thousand Parthian ostraca found at Nisa, not far from Ashkhabad (Turkmenistan) and dating to the first century BCE.

Bibliography

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André Lemaire