Thousands of stone “notepads” providing an unprecedented glimpse at everyday life in Egypt 2,000 years ago have been discovered by archaeologists.
The texts come in the unusual form of inscribed shards of pottery known as “ostraca.” Over the past 19 years, excavations by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the University of Tübingen in Germany at the ancient settlement of Athribis have unearthed over 18,000 of these ostraca, documenting many aspects of everyday life, including peoples' names, receipts for food, mythology, offerings to goddesses, and school homework.
Much of what we currently know about ancient Egypt comes from the important documents, the grand mummies, and glorious monuments of all-mighty pharaohs. On the contrary, the texts found at Athribis are particularly interesting as they shed light on the everyday life of the ordinary person, from the surprisingly insightful to the beautifully mundane.
The texts were written in a variety of different languages including Greek, Hieratic, and hieroglyphic, plus a few rare examples in Coptic and Arabic script.
Up to 80 percent of the texts were written in Demotic, the common administrative script in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which evolved out of Hieratic around 600 BCE. On top of words, there are also figurative illustrations of animals and people, some appearing to have been drawn by children.
Based on the nature of some of these texts, the team believes many of the ostraca were used by kids at an ancient school. In fact, they even discovered some texts are just inscribed with the same one or two characters over and over again as if a pupil is practicing their calligraphy skills – or perhaps writing lines as a punishment. Some things never change.
"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," Christian Leitz, a German Egyptologist who leads the Athribis Project, said in a statement.
“These sherds [broken pieces of ceramic] show various figurative representations, including animals such as scorpions and swallows, humans, gods from the nearby temple, even geometric figures," added Leitz.
The Athribis Project initially set out in the early 2000s to uncover and publish a large temple built by Ptolemy XII, the father of the famous Cleopatra VII. As the researchers note, the number of texts found at Athribis is practically unheard of. Such a large quantity of finds has only been made once before in Egypt at the workers' village of Deir el-Medineh near the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.
Studying these texts, written on both ostraca or papyrus, has helped to reveal a huge amount of knowledge about ancient Egyptian life. Perhaps with further work, the more recent finds from ancient Athribis may expose even more.