Ancient Writing Materials: Ostraka


Ostraka, also known as pot-sherds, are broken fragments of ancient pottery with writing on them. The writing may be scratched into the surface but most often is in ink. Pot-sherds are very common items to find in an archaeological excavation, and their abundance in the ancient world made them cheap sources of writing material in place of more expensive papyrus.

Often, ostraka were used as tax receipts, which one would use as proof of having paid one's taxes. Below is an example of a tax-receipt ostrakon.


ZPE 18 (1975)
tax receipt ostrakon
full image: front

Another use for ostraka was for voting in the process known as ostracism, a term which derives from the word 'ostrakon'. In this process, a city would choose one person to be exiled each year, and the decision was made by having each citizen write the name of his choice on an ostrakon.

You can find all records of ostraka in our APIS database by clicking here, or by going to the APIS search page and searching for the term "ost". The images are black and white because they are from photographs taken before the ostraka were returned to Cairo.




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Last modified: 03/11/2014