It is notably rare for archeologists to find complete artifacts, so the analysis of bits of broken pottery and other ceramic works, called “sherds,” is considered something of an art in the field. It turns out that much can be gleaned from even the smallest of relics, as demonstrated by some 18,000 ancient Egyptian pot sherds recovered in present-day Tell Atrib (ancient Athribis.)
The sherds are dated to some 2,000 years ago and are of a type known as ostraca, which were used as quotidian writing material. Lists of names, purchases of food and everyday objects, and even lines written by students as school punishment are among the texts inscribed with ink and a reed or hollow stick (calamus) on the earthenware fragments.
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The discovery was made during excavations led by Professor Christian Leitz of the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen in cooperation with Mohamed Abdelbadia of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. In a statement, Leitz notes that a large number of sherds in the trove could have come from 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,” Leitz said.
Among the most surprising findings are hundreds of ostraca that present writing exercises, including a repeating motif of the same one or two characters on the front and back of the surfaces. Archeologists characterize these sherds as samples of punishment, evoking the image of a Ptolemaic Bart Simpson being reprimanded for disrupting class.
Leitz also emphasized the presence of so-called “pictorial” examples. “These sherds show various figurative representations, including animals such as scorpions and swallows, humans, gods from the nearby temple, even geometric figures,” he added.
It is rare to find such a sizable volume of ostraca, with only a single precedent in Egypt, in the workers’ settlement of Deir el-Medineh near the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.
Around 80% of the pot sherds show use of Demotic, the common administrative script in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, but the second most common finds include Greek script, and the team also came across inscriptions in Hieratic and hieroglyphic. Ostraca inscribed in Coptic and Arabic were also present, though more rare. The trove shows the full range of the incredibly long and varied history of the region.
The ancient city of Athribis is situated around 25 miles north of Cairo, and is the known birthplace of famed architect and scribe Amenhotep, son of Hapu. Over the centuries, the city has seen Byzantine architecture, Ptolemaic bathhouses, and industrial buildings, as well as Roman and Coptic Christian populations. Historic records indicate an 18th Dynasty temple to Amenhotep III, a 26th Dynasty temple to Ahmose II, as well a huge church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the 1200s. There is also a large temple built by Ptolemy XII, the father of the famous Cleopatra VII, which Egyptologists at Tübingen University have been working to uncover since 2003.
This project has now been completed and the temple, built about 2,000 years ago for the lion goddess Repit and her consort Min and later converted into a nunnery in 380 AD, is open to visitors. But the excavation efforts continue, as layer after layer of history is revealed.