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OSTRACA (Gr. ὄστρακον, plural ὄστρακα), ancient inscribed potsherds. Ostraca were common writing materials in antiquity which were used mainly for writing receipts, temporary records, lists of names, etc., but some letters written on potsherds have also been found. Ostraca from the Middle Bronze Age II (c. 1788–1550 B.C.E.) have been found in Ereẓ Israel; the earliest one comes from the pile of debris left by *Macalister after his excavations at Gezer. It appears to represent a transitional stage between the proto-Sinaitic script and Hebrew-Phoenician alphabetic writing and has been deciphered as klb ("Caleb"). A later example of this transitional stage of writing appears on an ostracon from Tell el-Ḥesi discovered in the stratum attributed to the beginning of the Late Bronze Age II (c. 1400–1200 B.C.E.) which Sayce proposed reading bla. Three inscribed potsherds from Lachish, probably dedicatory inscriptions, and one from Tell al-ʿAjjūl, are dated to the 13th century B.C.E. An ostracon found at Beth–Shemesh belongs to the transitional period between the Middle and Late Bronze Age but since it is written in ink, the potsherd and the inscription cannot be definitely dated to the same period. It seems to date to the beginning of the 12th century B.C.E. and apparently contains a list of names of workers, the number of their work days, and names of the employers. It is the first ostracon found in Ereẓ Israel which contains numerals. The latest ostracon from Ereẓ Israel was found at Tell ab-Ṣarim in the Beth-Shean Valley and probably dates to the beginning of the first century B.C.E.

These ostraca are most valuable for tracing the development of the alphabet. Ostraca from the Israelite period have been found in the royal storehouse of the Israelite kings at *Samaria . These sherds, written in ink, are receipts for taxes and contain the year of payment, the name and provenance of the payer, the kind of tax (wine or oil), and some also have the name of the tax collector or the official in charge of the storehouse. These ostraca seem to date from the time of the Israelite king Jehoahaz, son of Jehu (c. 3–800 B.C.E.). Near the wall outside the city several other inscribed potsherds were found which were incised, and not written in ink. The "Ophel Ostracon" found in the City of David is assigned to the end of the period of the kingdom of Judah. It apparently contains the names of persons and their provenances. From the same period is a group of potsherds written in ink from Lachish (Tell al-Duwayr); 18 were found in the city gate and three in the latest Israelite stratum inside the city near the inner wall. In the excavations at Arad, ostraca were found written in Hebrew and Aramaic and one in Egyptian. They are assigned to the end of the kingdom of Judah and early Persian period and are mostly orders to the official in charge of the fortress to provide supplies to the soldiers of the Judean kings. Several fragmentary ostraca from the Persian period were discovered in the upper stratum (sixth–fifth century B.C.E.) at Tell al-Khalayfa (cf. *Ezion-Geber , *Elath ) on the coast of the Gulf of Akaba. They are written in Aramaic and are apparently receipts for wine.

Ostraca were commonly used in Egypt; those found at Elephantine are written in Aramaic in a script similiar to that appearing on the ostraca from Tell al-Khalayfa. The Egyptian ostraca, mostly tax receipts, are an important source of information on the economic history of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in Egypt, and include records of the taxes levied on the Jews from the time of Vespasian onward.


S. Yeivin, Toledot ha-Ketav ha-Ivri (1939); R.B. Kallner, in: Kedem, 2 (1945), 11ff.; E.L. Sukenik, ibid., 15; idem, in: PEFQS, 65 (1933), 152ff.; Y. Sukenik (Yadin), Yedi'ot ha-Ḥevrah la-Ḥakirat Ereẓ Yisrael ve-Attikoteha, 13 (1947), 115ff.; N.H. Torczyner, Te'udot Lakhish (1940); B. Maisler, in: JPOS, 21 (1948), 117ff.; U. Wilcken, Griechische Ostraka, 2 vols. (1899); P. Jouguet, in: Bulletin de I'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 2 (1902), 91ff.; E. Sachau, Aramaeische Papyrus and Ostraka…, 2 vols. (1911); D. Diringer, L 'alfabeto nella storia della civiltà (1931); Diringer, Iscr, 21–79; Moscati, Epig, 27–39, 44–46, 111–3; Y. Aharoni, in: IEJ, 16 (1966), 1–17; Tcherikover, Corpus, 2 (1960), 108–76.

[Encyclopaedia Hebraica]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.