18,000 inscribed sherds documents life in Ancient Egyptian city of Athribis

Egyptologists excavating in the Ancient Egyptian city of Athribis, nearly 200 kilometres north of Luxor have recovered over 18,000 inscribed sherds known as ostraca.

They were recovered during excavations led by Professor Christian Leitz of the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) at the University of Tübingen in cooperation with Mohamed Abdelbadia and his team from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.


The sherds 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.

In ancient times, ostraca were used in large quantities as writing material, inscribed with ink and a reed or hollow stick (calamus). Such a large quantity of finds has only been made once before in Egypt, in the workers’ settlement of Deir el-Medineh, near the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.

Around 80 percent 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.


They also discovered pictorial ostraca – a special category, says Christian Leitz. “These sherds show various figurative representations, including animals such as scorpions and swallows, humans, gods 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.

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