Ostraca, Clay Sherds with Ink Inscriptions

When people first began to invent writing systems, they did not have a plentiful and cheap supply of paper to write on, like we do today. They used a variety of materials on which to keep records, preserve religious and literary texts, and transmit laws.

Many people in the ancient Near East and Egypt used treated skins (or parchment) or papyrus (a kind of paper made from reeds) to write on. Both, however, were expensive, and papyrus was made only in Egypt and had to be imported. Therefore, only really important documents were written on those materials: literary and religious texts, contracts, important letters. For everyday use, it became much more common to use writing material that was cheap and plentiful: broken pieces, or sherds, of clay jars.

Today we call those pieces of clay with writing on them ostraca, singular ostracon. The word comes from the Greek ostrakon, meaning “shell, sherd.” Most ostraca were written with ink, but some were incised with a sharp instrument. School lessons, short letters, receipts, and other administrative documents were written on these clay sherds.

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