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Coptic ostraka (Heike Behlmer)

The work on Coptic ostraka from TT99 during the 2001 autumn campaign took place from October 4 through October 16. It consisted in the collation against the originals of transcriptions obtained from black and white photographs taken by Nigel Strudwick during earlier campaign seasons. The largest part of the 118 ostraka collated was found during the excavation of the courtyard and the shafts in it, principally in the 1997 season; the others came from different areas inside the tomb. Together with the facts that the ostraka were for the most part small fragments and in a rather bad state of preservation, and that no traces of Coptic settlements were discovered inside the tomb or in the courtyard, the distribution of the finds supports the hypothesis that the ostraka may have been brought to the tomb area together with large amounts of pottery in modern times, possibly as debris from earlier excavations. All of the neighbouring tombs further up the hill ( TT84, 85, 87, and 97) show sometimes considerable remains of Coptic settlements, such as mud brick walls and loom pits, and may be the original area in which the ostraka were excavated. The ostraka from TT99 should therefore be seen in the general context of settlement patterns on the hill of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna.

Because of the poor condition of the ostraka, viewing the originals was essential for the decipherment of large parts of many of the pieces, and very good results--in relation to the preliminary transcription from photographs--were achieved on many of them. Already one hundred years ago it was noted by scholars that in many cases, faded writing on pottery sherds can be made more visible by applying moisture. We enhanced the legibility of many of the ostraka by carefully applying pure alcohol which will evaporate quickly without leaving traces. In some cases, this did not help. Most of the ostraka were pottery sherds taken from ribbed Late Roman amphorae. The convex part of the ribs is particularly susceptible to exterior influences, and sometimes, the writing on the ribs was rubbed off (see adjacent photo of 99.97.0672; every second line, particularly in the bottom half, is virtually illegible). There is also a vital difference between limestone and pottery ostraka. On limestone ostraka, once the top layer of the stone is rubbed off, the writing is irretrievably gone. Despite the rough treatment the ostraka seem to have undergone in general, there is a considerable number which will advance our knowledge about the settlements of Coptic monks which prospered in the area in the late sixth/early seventh centuries ad .

In the archaeological area of Western Thebes several thousand ostraka and papyri have been found which document various stages of local history. They start in the second half of the sixth century ad , when the Coptic church was a flourishing institution. The monastery of Apa Phoibammon was founded around 600 inside the neighbouring temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari, and this was also the time when Apa Epiphanius lived, who founded a monastery inside and around the 11th dynasty tomb of Dagi (TT103). In 641/642 Egypt, an important province of the Byzantine Empire, was conquered by Arab troops. Although state support was withdrawn from the church, it continued to exist in a relatively undisturbed condition under the early caliphs. Under the later Umayyads, however, the fiscal treatment of the Egyptian population worsened and financial pressure on the monasteries increased. Both monastic and lay settlements in Western Thebes were abandoned for reasons not yet completely understood. The last of these settlements to be given up was the monastery of Phoibammon which was deserted in the 780s. However, W.E. Crum assumes that the monastic settlements on the hill of Sheikh Abdel Qurna may have been abandoned much earlier, maybe as early as the middle of the seventh century.1 Prosopographical studies focussing on the names of the sender(s) and addressee(s) of letters or other personal names will hopefully link the material from TT99 to published ostraka from these nearby sites.

One can also observe a certain pattern of distribution which relates the text types to the materials used as writing supports. Papyrus had to be imported from the Fayum or from Lower Egypt and was therefore reserved for longer documents of wider importance, such as contracts, testaments or donations which were then kept in public archives for reference. In TT99 (as in other nearby locations) we therefore find only a few small papyrus fragments. The higher worth of papyrus over sherds was well known to the correspondents, and the sender may sometimes apologize for not using papyrus. Limestone or pottery ostraka were mainly used for private letters, simple business transactions or writing exercises. Because of their smooth surface and light-coloured writing ground, limestone ostraka were a favourite choice for religious texts (see adjacent photo of 99.96.0054) and for school exercises.

Most of the ostraka which can be classified according to types of texts are letters (including one of the relatively rare letters by a woman). A very small number (two, perhaps three) consists of school exercises (see photo of 99.98.0128), and three, possibly five, limestone ostraka contain fragments of homiletic texts. Three texts have a financial or legal content. Except for the unusually small number of school exercises, the distribution of text types and the use of different writing materials (e.g. limestone for religious texts), as well as the absence of certain types of ostraka such as tax receipts, fall within the patterns observed in the ostraka from other nearby locations such as the well-known monastery of Epiphanius.

The new finds allow glimpses into different aspects of the daily life of the monks living in the area and their correspondents. These aspects are (1) problems of daily subsistence (2) the (religious) education of the monks and (3)--rarely--poverty, debt and other extreme situations. The senders of the ostraka from TT99 are mainly concerned with different aspects of daily life. They frequently write about the delivery of shrouds and other linen products. The interest in these products links the epigraphic information from our ostraka to earlier archaeological finds which show burials of monks wrapped in several layers of large linen pieces. Other common subjects are the transfer of money or food products. The education of the monks is documented on the one hand by the small number of writing exercises, on the other by the excerpts from religious texts, which are written in a practised hand. Lastly, financial and personal difficulties such as the death of a sister are mentioned in a few letters.

During the process of collating, 21 of the ostraka were selected for paper publication paper while the complete documentation including digital photographs of all the pieces will be available in database form.


3. H.E. Winlock and W.E. Crum, The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition, 2 vols., New York 1926, Reprint 1973, p. 103.

© Nigel Strudwick 1997-2018