Ostraca: Voices from the Place of Truth—An intimate glimpse into New Kingdom Egypt | Ancient Origins Members Site


Ostraca: Voices from the Place of Truth—An intimate glimpse into New Kingdom Egypt

Ostraca: Voices from the Place of Truth—An intimate glimpse into New Kingdom Egypt

Athenians meted out harsh punishments to those who fell afoul of prevalent laws or societal norms. If citizens had done something terrible, they ran the risk of being exiled from the city for up to 10 years. An interesting system was put in place whereby citizen peers voted by scratching the name of the charged person on an ostracon (Greek for shard of pottery; plural ostraca), that was later counted. The fate of the accused was sealed if the majority felt he or she deserved to be “ostracized”.

An Athenian ostracon inscribed with the name of a politician proposed for exile by popular vote. This specimen proposes Megacles, to be ostracized in 487 BC. Ancient Agora Museum, Athens. Housed in the Stoa of Attalus.

An Athenian ostracon inscribed with the name of a politician proposed for exile by popular vote. This specimen proposes Megacles, to be ostracized in 487 BC. Ancient Agora Museum, Athens. Housed in the Stoa of Attalus. (Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto/Public Domain)

In fact, many early civilizations used ostraca—the ancient equivalent of ‘Post Its’—for a variety of purposes, including as tax receipts, legal documents, and for jotting down miscellaneous bits of information. These scribbled words, writing or drawings have given us an insight into the inner workings of ancient peoples. This brings us to the ancient Egyptians who, being prolific writers and artists, either couldn’t afford the costly papyri sheets, or ran out of them often. The ubiquity of limestone flakes and potsherds was their readymade and ingenious solution.


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