More than 18,000 sherds (also called ostraca), which are jars and vessels that were used to write on approximately 2,000 years ago, were discovered by Egyptologists in ancient Athribis, Egypt. Ancient sherds were a very popular way to write information down by adding ink to a reed or a hollow stick named a calamus.
These sherds that were recently discovered were used to write down lists of names, food purchases, and other bought items. They were also used in schools where children would write down numbers, months, arithmetic problems, the alphabet, and grammar exercises, as well as for a type of punishment where they had to write down the same one or two characters over and over again (an ancient version of writing lines?).
Egyptologists from Tübingen, Germany, have been in Athribis since 2003 and were part of a 15-year research project that began in 2005 and was funded by the German Research Foundation. Their focus was to unearth a temple that was built by Ptolemy XII who was Cleopatra VII’s father. The temple was constructed approximately 2,000 years ago for the lion goddess Repit and her consort Min. In the year 380 AD, the structure was turned into a nunnery.
Beginning in 2018, the researchers began excavating an area to the west of the temple where there are buildings with several stories, vaults, and staircases. The remaining part of the site is full of rubble and that’s where they uncovered thousands of sherds. The excavations were led by Professor Christian Leitz from the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) at the University of Tübingen, with help from Mohamed Abdelbadia and his team from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The writing on the sherds was analyzed by a team of international experts who mostly came from Germany and France.
The majority of the sherds (about 80%) contained an administrative script known as Demotic that was commonly used during the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. This script was created from Hieratic after the year 600 BC. The second most common script found on the sherds was Greek. The team did find some Hieratic inscriptions, along with some hieroglyphics, Coptic script, and Arabic script.
Furthermore, they found pictorial ostraca as described by Professor Leitz, “These sherds show various figurative representations, including animals such as scorpions and swallows, humans, gods from the nearby temple, even geometric figures.”
The fact that so many sherds were uncovered is extremely rare. In fact, such a massive amount has only been found one other time in Egypt, specifically in the workers' settlement of Deir el-Medina, close to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. These sherds will certainly provide experts with a better understanding of how life was lived around 2,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. Excavations are still being conducted, so they may find even more interesting objects.
Pictures of the sherds can be viewed here.