Ostracon

The Ostrakon is a pottery shard, which served as a cheap writing material in addition to papyrus and parchment in antiquity. Such ostracs were mainly found in ancient Greece as well as in the Egypt of the 3rd century BC, Chr. Most of the time, the shards were used to keep short notes, such as school assignments, invoices, receipts, lists, sayings or even concise letters of all kinds. In addition, literary and religious texts can also be found on Ostraka. For this purpose, the text has either been inked or carved into the Ostracon using a pointed object. Very rarely, however, the term is also used for shell, egg and limestone shards, which serve the same purpose.

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The term is derived from the Greek noun τὸ ὄστρακον, which can be translated with Tonscherbebe. In addition, the Ostrakismos, the so-called culinary dish, is derived. This term is used to describe a procedure in antiquity – especially in Athens – to expel unwelcome citizens from the political environment. For this purpose, every citizen could “write or scratch on his own vocal”, whom he wanted to have expelled from the city. If this person was named by a majority of at least 6000 votes, she was banished from the city for 10 years.

Examples of different ostracs from antiquity
Image: Potsherds (ostraka) used as voting tokens by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, adaptation: Wortwuchs, License: CC BY 2.0, Quelle

The above example shows four different pieces of clay which were probably used in a culinary court. Three of the ostracs depicted show the name of Megakles, the son of Hippocrates, who was an Athenian politician. Megakles was shown to be 487/86 v. He was exiled by the culminating court, although he had already been able to do so after a few years, Chr. – was recalled.

Moreover, some of these potsherds contain not only individual names, but also literary articles, such as short poems in a few verses, or copies of single verses of well-known ancient poets. However, such ostracons are rather irrelevant with regard to the literary testimony, but they are also valuable for the dialect research, topography and economic history of antiquity and are also a source of political processes and the everyday life of antiquity.

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