In the Hellenic period a shard or an animal’s shoulder blade. It was employed in a city-state’s assembly when a vote of ostracism was taken, and was customarily the writing material for nonliterary documents, particularly those of an economic character. In the later Roman and Byzantine eras, in Egypt the ostracon came to be utilized in a far wider range of recording functions. The types of sub-stances used became more numerous, including smooth limestone chips (especially in Upper Egypt, where they were abundant). Most published and known Coptic ostraca date from 500 to 800.
The wide variety of functions that ostraca served, as well as their significance, can be amply documented by citing a few brief examples. Of the biblical texts on ostraca, more than half of the published pieces are quoted from the Psalter, a clear illustration of the importance of worship, enriched by song, among Copts in the late Byzantine era. Homilies and sermons, whose most frequent form of address was hortatory, concerned social and theological subjects. For example, one ostracon exhorted unity in a congregation riven with schism (Crum, 1902, no. 14).
The lists and accounts inventory a broad variety of items: money paid, goods sold or delivered, names of persons and places, books, churches, months, names of animals, and glossaries of Greek and Coptic terms (e.g., Crum, 1902, nos. 434, 469; Galling, 1966). Personal letters, frequently in almost illegible handwriting, discuss anything from marriage, divorce, and family-related issues to situations that involved civil magistrates, ecclesiastical officials, and others. A common focus of such letters was concern for the welfare of the poor (e.g., Crum and Evelyn-White, 1926, no. 165).
Since the scriptures were often cited in such works urging the recipient to action, one can visualize how the Bible and religious sentiment were employed in contacts between people, whether of high or low station. Legal and commercial texts, distinguished by the appearance of the names of witnesses at the bottom, include tax receipts, acknowledgments of loans, wills, rental agreements, and even guarantees of local safety for travelers (e.g., Crum, 1902, nos. 108, 145, 147, 160-63, 166, 206; Crum and White, 1926, nos. 87, 93). Ecclesiastical documents, encompassing fines levied by clerics, liturgical calendars, episcopal edicts, homilies, and circular letters, portray the relationships of ecclesiastical officials with others and serve to underscore the significant influence of church officials in Egyptian society.
Shards also were utilized as sketch pads on which artisans drew designs to be employed on the walls and floors of ecclesiastical buildings.
- Crum, W. E. Coptic Ostraca from the Collection of the Egyptian Exploration Fund, the Cairo Museum, and Others. London, 1902.
- Crum, W. E., and H. G. Evelyn-White, eds. The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes, Pt. 2, Coptic and Greek Ostraca and Papyri. New York, 1926.
- Galling, K. “Datum und Sinn der graeco-koptischen Mühlenostraka im Lichte neuer Belege aus Jerusalem.” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 82 (1966):46-56.
- Stefanski, E., and M. Lichtheim. Coptic Ostraca from Medinet Habu. University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications 71. Chicago, 1952.