Egyptologists have recovered in ancient Athribis more than 18,000 fragments with inscriptions, remains of vessels and ceramics that served as writing material about 2,000 years ago. The fragments, known as ostraci, document lists of names, purchases of food and everyday objects, and even school writing, which includes lines written by students as punishment.
It is very rare to find such a large volume of ostracs. They were recovered during excavations led by Professor Christian Leitz, from the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) at the University of Tübingen, in collaboration with Mohamed Abdelbadia and his team from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
In ancient times, ostraci were used in large quantities as writing material, inscribed with ink and a hollow reed or stick (calamus). Such a large number of finds had only been produced once before in Egypt, in the workers' settlement of Deir el-Medineh, near the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.
The now recovered ostraci provide a variety of insights into daily life in the ancient settlement of Athribis, nearly 200 kilometers north of Luxor.
Around 80% of the fragments are inscribed in Demotic, the administrative script common in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which developed from hieratic after 600 BC.
Among the second most common finds are ostraci with Greek script, but the team also came across inscriptions in hieratic, hieroglyphic, and more rarely Coptic and Arabic.
They also discovered pictorial ostraci, a special category, says Christian Leitz. These fragments show various figurative representations, including animals such as scorpions and swallows, human beings, gods from the nearby temple, even geometric figures .
The content of ostraci ranges from lists of various names to accounts of different foods and everyday items. According to the research team, a surprisingly large number of fragments could be assigned to an ancient school. 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 .
An issue of three ostraci also contains writing exercises that the team classifies as punishment:the fragments are inscribed with one or two of the same characters each time, on both the front and back.
Egyptologists from Tübingen have been working at Athribis since 2003, and since 2005 as part of a 15-year research project funded by the German Research Foundation. The goal was to discover and publish a great temple built by Ptolemy XII, the father of the famous Cleopatra VII. This project has now been completed and the temple is open to visitors.
The shrine was built around 2,000 years ago for the lion goddess Repit and her consort Min, and was converted into a monastery after pagan cults were banned in 380. Since spring 2018, excavations have been underway west of the temple in another sanctuary, and the team has come across the numerous ostraci in the rubble. Excavations are ongoing.
Excavation director Marcus Müller faces increasingly challenging tasks at the site as the depth increases. In the west of the excavation area, multi-story buildings with stairways and vaults are coming to light; the rest of the area has been filled with rubble over the centuries.
The analysis of the ostracs by an international team, mostly from France and Germany, is coordinated by Sandra Lippert, head of research at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) of Paris. Pictographic ostraci are being investigated by Carolina Teotino at the University of Tubingen.
University of Tübingen – Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES)