Summary: Messages written on broken pottery give insight to the daily lives and concerns of ancient people in the biblical world.
And he captured a young man of Succoth and questioned him. And he wrote down for him the officials and elders of Succoth, seventy-seven men. – Judges 8:14 (ESV)
“Ostraca–’Post-it Notes’ of Antiquity”1
Have you ever needed to make a note to yourself or to someone else and picked up a small piece of paper on which to jot the message? These are rarely meant to be saved or archived. They are usually important, though, in that they preserve information that you might need in the short term. The ancient ostracon functioned essentially the same purpose.
The term “ostracon” (singular; plural is ostraca) is defined by Liddell and Scott (1264) as an “[1.] earthen vessel… 2. fragment of such a vessel, potsherd… esp. the potsherd used in voting…: hence… the danger of ostracism…” A verbal form developed to refer to “banish (esp. from Athens) by potsherds, ostracize…” (Liddell and Scott 1263).
In ancient Greek society, if the citizens deemed it necessary to ostracize another citizen of Athens (in particular), they would vote on the action. Plutarch (ca. 46-120 AD), narrated the procedure relative to ostracizing Aristides from Athens: “Each voter took an ostrakon, or potsherd, wrote on it the name of that citizen whom he wished to remove from the city, and brought it to a place in the agora which was all fenced about with railings. The archons first counted the total number of ostraka cast. For if the voters were less than six thousand, the ostracism was void. Then they separated the names, and the man who had received the most votes they proclaimed banished for ten years, with the right to enjoy the income from his property” (Lives, Aristides 7.4-6).
Plutarch lived several centuries after these legal proceedings to ostracize Aristides (which occurred ca. 482 BC), but Herodotus (8.79), writing in the fifth century BC, no more than decades after the procedure, confirms that Athens had indeed ostracized Aristides. They had allowed him to return, however, to help defend Greece against the Persian invasion of ca. 480 BC at Salamis. Several ostraca bearing Aristides’ name were retrieved from a well in the Athenian agora (see above).2
The archaeological world has modified the meaning of “ostracon.” Rather than applying to a ceramic vessel in general as indicated in the Greek definition above, or even simply to a piece of broken pottery (which in the Levantine world we tend to call a “sherd” rather than “shard”), ostraca are pieces of broken pottery, stone, or shells which people used as ad hoc writing surfaces. The writing was usually in ink, but sometimes was incised or scratched into the surface. (See Dr. Manor’s past Thinker article on sherds in the word.)
The writing itself might be just words and/or numbers, but could include drafts of sketches/drawings (Peck 621). Usually in ancient Israel and Syria, they reflect verbal communications of some kind. Ostraca are rare in Mesopotamia until near the end of the Babylonian empire when Aramaic began to be the dominant language of the region (Lemaire 190).3
More formal writing surfaces of papyrus, parchment, and leather were expensive. Broken pottery pieces, however, were plentiful and were convenient writing surfaces for ad hoc data that one did not intend to archive. Usually the messages were written on one side of a sherd from a larger vessel, the gentle curvature of which provided a more convenient surface. The smoother, outside of the vessel was the typical surface, but some messages would use both sides of the sherd.
Important to note, however, is that an ostracon was a sherd that was used as a writing surface; the term does not technically apply to just any sherd that has writing on it. Often complete vessels would have words or data recorded on them, such as the name of the person(s) who owned the jar or a description of its contents. In Egypt, these are referred to as “jar dockets” (Peck 621). Technically they would not be ostraca because they were originally part of a complete vessel. A tell-tale sign of such an inscription would be when the incision occurred before the vessel was fired; an incision into wet clay squeezes the clay aside into ridges creating small ridges along the letters.
Being ad hoc inscriptions, most ostraca consisted of letters and messages, records of temporary record-keeping, bills and receipts, practice documents, and sometimes random names and lists. These tend to reflect the reality of people’s lives. They usually do not promote some official political tenet, but the reactions and/or perspectives of the individuals involved in the creation of the documents. Hence, they provide valuable insights in the ways people actually lived and thought. Admittedly, the larger contexts of what prompted the creation of the documents may remain elusive.
Ostraca from the Egyptian village of Deir al-Medina near the Valley of the Kings have preserved extensive information about daily life, resources, work ethics, expectations, diet, and beliefs. These date from the 16th-11th centuries BC and are among the earliest and most comprehensive array of ostraca we have. The Deir al-Medina community was responsible for the construction of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. We could only wish to find a similar range of ostraca to provide insights into the daily lives and workings of the ancient biblical world.
One particularly striking ostracon is an almost complete version of the “Tale of Sinuhe”—a narrative of the life of a man who lived in the early 20th century BC who became a sort of folk hero in Egyptian society. The ostracon is huge—measuring ca. 12.4 x 34.8 inches [31.5 x 88.5 cm]—and written on limestone.4
Fortunately, a number of ostraca can enhance our understanding of some biblical episodes.
Ad hoc Letters and Messages – Insights to the Bible
Ostraca served as very suitable means to send messages. A downside of such, however, would be the relative lack of confidentiality. One could fold and seal messages written on papyrus, parchment, or leather as indicated when Jeremiah bought the field of his cousin in Jeremiah 32:9-15. Ostraca, on the other hand, were essentially fully exposed (assuming there might be others who were literate to read the messages).5
Two ostraca impinge on biblical narratives on the eve of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah addressed Zedekiah (reigned 597-586 BC) when Nebuchadnezzar was besieging Jerusalem along with “…Lachish and Azekah, for these were the only fortified cities of Judah that remained” (Jer. 34:7). Excavations at Lachish, a site ca. 28 miles southwest of Jerusalem, uncovered several ostraca in the city gate which was destroyed in the 586 BC. One ostracon was apparently from another town7 that had sent a message to Lachish informing them that “…we are watching the (fire)-signals of Lachish according to the code which my lord gave us, for we cannot see Azeqah” (Pardee, “Lachish” 80). The ostracon implies that Azekah had already fallen, which in turn indicates that the ostracon reflects a development slightly after the narrative of Jeremiah. (See evidence that supports Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians.)
Another comes from Arad, a fortress in the desert between Beersheba and the Dead Sea. It, too, dates from the end of the Monarchy. The ostracon apparently was sent from the king [Zedekiah?] ordering Arad to send reinforcements to Elisha at a site known as Ramat-negeb: “The(se) men (must be) with Elisha lest (the) Edom(ites) (should) enter there” (Pardee, “Arad” 84-85). This information dovetails with implications of Edomite incursions into the southern borders of Judah. Obadiah (10-16) lambasts the Edomites for their participation to destroy Judah, a sentiment that appears also in Ezekiel 25:12-14. When the Israelites lamented their captivity and exile to Babylon, they remembered Edom’s complicity in the siege.
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” – Psalm 137:7 (ESV)
Ostraca were sometimes used for legal petitions and/or transactions. From the time of Judah’s King Josiah (ca. late 7th century BC) archaeologists discovered a sherd at Mesad Hashavyahu, a site near ancient Joppa. The ostracon was a petition by a person asking the overseer in charge of the region (governor, military overseer, local administrator?) to intervene on his behalf to help retrieve his garment that the local field overseer had apparently confiscated (see translation in Pardee, “Mesad” 77-78).
While there is no explicit appeal to the Bible, the issue of this petition dovetails with the Mosaic legislation not to keep a worker’s cloak overnight because it might be the only covering for warmth (cf. Exo. 22:26-27; Deut. 24:12-13; cf. Amos 2:8). The petition’s plea implies a breach of etiquette of such a confiscation, as if everyone knows it is so. Regretfully, we do not know the outcome of the petition. (See Dr. Manor’s Thinker article on sherds in the dirt.)
Another, odd ostracon comes from the island of Elephantine in Egypt near the first cataract of the Nile. On our Gregorian Calendar it dates to 7 October 110 AD. It reads: “The tax-farmers (telonai) Pelaias and Socration grant to the hetaira [i.e. a “courtesan” —dw.m] Thinabdella the right to sleep on a certain day with whomever she wishes.”8 Apparently, it was her one-day pass to legalize her activity! One wonders: Why this “pass?”
Temporary Record Keeping
Ostraca often preserve lists of people and/or goods. Several from Arad list names followed by numbers (cf. e.g., Aharoni, Inscriptions 49, 58, 59, 60, 61, 67 et al.). The names and numbers reflect quantities probably of either goods received or distributed. Many of the ostraca specifically mention distributions of grain/bread and wine (Aharoni 143-44).
Excavations at Samaria in 1908-1910 discovered a collection of ostraca dating from the early 8th century BC which reflect either receipt or distribution of wine and oil (see Suriano, “Samaria” 83-85).9 A later excavation project at Samaria in the 1930s found an ostracon in a different location demanding the distribution of a quantity of barley (Suriano, “Barley” 81; see photo at top of article). This ostracon dates to the second half of the 8th century BC.
Ostraca would have been convenient surfaces on Gideon would have had the young man of Succoth record the names of the seventy-seven elders and officials of the town (Judg 8:14). Gideon intended to punish these leaders because they refused his request for rations when he pursued the fleeing Midianites (Judg 8:4-7). To have used parchment, leather, or papyrus would have been unrealistic and a waste of resources, especially with the general prevalence of broken pottery that usually characterizes most ancient villages and towns.
To use parchment, leather, or papyrus merely for practice would also have been an imprudent use of resources. Ostraca were ideal for such occasional exercises. An ostracon was used by an ancient student as a practice surface to learn the alphabet (a listing of the alphabet is referred to as an abecedary). It was found at ‘Izbet Sarta (app. 27 miles northwest of Jerusalem) which was likely Ebenezer of 1 Samuel 4:1. The ostracon dates from the 12th-11th centuries BC (Demsky 14; Kochavi 12).
Another inscription, although debatable whether it should be dubbed an ostracon, is the so-called Gezer calendar. It, too, was apparently a “practice” document. Albright (“Gezer” 21) and McCarter (222) note that the surface of the soft stone shows signs of scraping as if to remove earlier writing to a smooth surface below. The superimposition of a script over an earlier one is called a palimpsest. The “calendar” was excavated in 1908 by R. A. S. Macalister at the site of Gezer (ca. 20 miles west-northwest of Jerusalem). The inscription’s style of writing puts it in the 10th century BC (Albright, “Gezer” 21; McCarter 222). (See evidence for the destruction of biblical Gezer.)
The inscription lyrically describes the sequence of the agricultural year and the work that characterized each “month.” Rather than recording a month’s name, it identifies the work involved, such as the “month of barley harvest.” This is how the year is described when Ruth and Naomi returned to Bethlehem, the time of “barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22).
Names and Words on Ostraca
Sometimes ostraca preserve longer discussions, which remain cryptic because of faded ink, abrasions, or they are broken. One such ostracon came from Grant’s excavations at Tel Beth-Shemesh. Much of it remains undeciphered, but it clearly preserves the name hnn (“Hanan”). The ostracon dates from ca. 1200 BC (Grant and Wright 5, 15, 46-47). The name Hanan appears again on an inscription from the same site dating from the 10th century BC (Bunimovitz and Lederman 48) as well as on yet another inscription from the 10th century BC from Batash/Timnah (Kelm and Mazar 111-13; Mazar and Panitz-Cohen 190-91) only about five miles away. The name appears in Solomon’s redistricting list as possibly “Elon Beth-Hanan” (1 Kgs 4:9; i.e., “Elon of the house of Hanan”). Bunimovitz and Lederman (48) suggest that Hanan was the name of a “clan in the region” (48), a suggestion also presented by Mazar and Panitz-Cohen (190-91).
Various sites have yielded ceramic pieces with individual names written on them. Some of the Arad ostraca preserve individual names, which would not be surprising since the site was “home” to a temple shrine with strong similarities to the temple in Jerusalem. It had a “holy of holies” which housed a raised platform believed to be a “high place.” Immediately in front of it were two incense altars. These were at the threshold as one would pass from the “holy place” into the “holy of holies.” In the courtyard was an altar for burnt offerings.11 (See evidence for cannabis use in worship at Arad.)
This shrine/temple complex would have required a priesthood to oversee and perform the rituals. Scattered in the ruins of the site were numerous ostraca, some preserving only names while others listed names along with numbers (see discussion above). Some of the names on the ostraca were priestly-type names (Aharoni 85-87, 148-49; see Inscription #50 above, which reads “Meremoth.”
While we are unsure exactly how these ostraca were used, one possibility is that they may have been in lot-drawing ceremonies. The book of 1 Chronicles 25 refers to the use of “lots” to determine activities or locations.
Etymologically, the word for “lot” (Heb. גֹּרָל gôrāl) appears to refer to small stones that people used to cast lots (Dommershausen 450). The term may have morphed to apply to stones with names on them (Ibid, 452). Perhaps a further development was to appropriate the conveniently accessible broken pottery to serve as suitable venues to write one’s name for lot-casting.
A collection of ostraca with isolated names on them came to light in the excavations at Masada (ca. 73 AD). One name apparently was of the group’s leader—Ben Yair, probably a shortened name of Eleazar ben-Yair mentioned in Josephus’ Jewish Wars (2.447). Yadin (201) suggested that the ostraca were evidence of a lot-drawing exercise to determine who among them would dispatch the survivors at Masada so they would not be delivered to Roman abuse. His interpretation was largely colored by Josephus’ narrative of this episode (Jewish Wars 7.395). Yadin’s interpretation, however, has not found universal acceptance. Zangenberg (112) has suggested that they were used more mundanely as lots to determine rationing or military duties.
The almost ubiquitous array of broken pottery provided easily accessible writing surfaces. The messages were not intended to be archived, but to serve as convenient, occasional messages—notes for the moment. The uses or even meaning of the ostraca often remain elusive, but many of these “Post-it” notes of antiquity supply rich contextual texture to the daily lives and concerns of the people of the land.
In many ways, they were just like us! Keep thinking.
1 With due respect to the 3M company and “Post-it Note.”
2 In addition, the well yielded numerous ostraca bearing the name of Themistocles who was Aristides’ long-time rival. The name Pericles appeared on at least one ostracon. Following the Persian War, Pericles had spearheaded the construction of much of the architecture on Athens’ Acropolis, including the Parthenon.
3 There essentially are no cuneiform ostraca since cuneiform must be incised into the surface of the clay.
4 The large ostracon is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Numerous smaller fragments of the story have been found scattered around Egypt. For a translation of the story, see Lichtheim (77-82).
5 Just how prevalent literacy was in the ancient world is a matter of diverse opinion (see discussion in King and Stager 310-15). Mastery of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian Akkadian was quite demanding since the written languages consist of hundreds, if not thousands, of figures to master. Alphabetic writing, however, requires mastery of only a limited number of symbols (usually 22-30), each of which represents a relatively distinct sound. Thus an alphabet enhanced the possibility of a common person being literate, but the question of its pervasiveness remains unclear.
6 While the inscription is very faint, the ink has probably faded through the years since its discovery. Fortunately, multi-spectral imaging has proven extremely valuable to expose many images that have been lost.
7 An alternative understanding suggests that the ostracon was a local copy of an official message sent to Jerusalem from Lachish to inform them that the fires of Azekah could not be seen (see Ussishkin 380-82).
Aharoni, Yohanan. Arad Inscriptions. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981.
Albright, William F. “The Gezer Calendar.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 92 (1943): 16-26.
Bunimovitz, Shlomo and Zvi Lederman. “Beth-Shemesh: Culture Conflict on Judah’s Frontier.” Biblical Archaeology Review 23.1 (1997): 42-49, 75-77.
Demsky, Aaron. “A Proto-Canaanite Abecedary Dating from the Period of the Judges and Its Implications for the History of the Alphabet.” Tel Aviv 4.1-2 (1977): 14-27.
Dommershausen, W. “גֹּרָל gôrāl.” Pp. 450-56 in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2. Eds. G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren. Trans. J. T. Willis. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
Grant, Elihu. Ain Shems Excavations (Palestine) 1928-1929-1930-1931, Pt. 1. Haverford: Haverford College, 1931.
Grant, Elihu and G. Ernest Wright. Ain Shems Excavations (Palestine), Pt. V (Text). Haverford: Haverford College, 1939.
Herzog, Ze’ev. “Arad.” Pp. 221 in New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1. Ed. K. D. Sakenfeld. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006.
Kelm, George and Amihai Mazar. Timnah: A Biblical City in the Sorek Valley. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1995.
King, Philip J. and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Kochavi, Moshe. “An Ostracon of the Period of the Judges from ‘Izbet Sartah.” Tel Aviv 4.1-2 (1977): 1-13.
Lemaire, André. “Ostracon.” Pp. 189-91 in Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 4. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Lichtheim, Miriam. “Sinuhe (1.38).” Pp. 77-82 in Context of Scripture, vol. 1. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 1997.
Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon. With Supplement, ed. E. A. Barber. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968.
Manor, Dale W. and Gary A. Herion. “Arad.” Pp. 331-36 in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1. Ed. D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Mazar, Amihai and Nava Panitz-Cohen. Timnah (Tel Batash) II: The Finds from the First Millennium BCE: Text. Qedem 42. Jerusalem: The Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2001.
McCarter, P. Kyle. “The Gezer Calendar (2.85).” Pp. 222 in Context of Scripture, vol. 2. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
Pardee, Dennis. “Arad Ostraca (3.43).” Pp. 81-85 in Context of Scripture, vol. 3. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
Pardee, Dennis. “Lachish Ostraca (3.42).” Pp. 78-81 in Context of Scripture, vol. 3. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
Pardee, Dennis. “The Mesad Hashavyahu (Yavneh Yam) Ostracon (3.41).” Pp. 77-78 in Context of Scripture, vol. 3. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
Peck, William H. “ Ostraca.” Pp. 621-22 in Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 2. Ed. D. B. Redford. New York: Oxford University, 2001.
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives, Aristides and Cato 7.4-6. Trans. B. Perrin. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1914.
Suriano, Matthew. “Barley Order (4.17).” Pp. 81 in Context of Scripture, vol. 4. Ed. K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
Suriano, Matthew. “Samaria Ostraca (4.18).” Pp. 81-85 in Context of Scripture, vol. 4. Ed. K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
Ussishkin, David. Biblical Lachish: A Tale of Construction, Destruction, Excavation and Restoration. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Biblical Archaeology Society, 2014.
Wente, Edward F. “The Scribes of Ancient Egypt.” Pp. 2211-21 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 4. Ed. J. M. Sasson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995.
Yadin, Yigael. Masada. New York: Random House, 1966.
Zangenberg, Jürgen K. “Masada.” Pp. 106-14 in Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology, vol. 2. Ed. D. M. Master. New York: Oxford, 2013.
TOP PHOTO: An 8th century BC ostracon from Samaria demanding the distribution of barley. (credit: DW.Manor, courtesy of the Rockefeller Museum)