The present project aims to study the materiality and the socio-linguistic aspects of the use of ostraca as a writing support. For this purpose, it draws on a corpus of unpublished documents from Athribis in Upper Egypt, discovered in an on-going excavation led by the university of Tübingen (Germany). These inscribed sherds can be dated to the period from the Ist c. BCE to the VIIth c. CE; they are mainly inscribed in Egyptian (hieroglyphs, hieratic and demotic, ± 70%) and in Greek (± 15%). There are also some in Coptic and Arabic, as well as drawings. The material presents a (hitherto rarely seized) opportunity to combine the philological study of such a corpus, which allows to specify the types and functions of the texts inscribed on pottery sherds, with their ceramological analysis (measurements, analysis of the fabric, vessel type, used parts, origin in Egypt or abroad, dating). This interdisciplinary study will yield answers about the users and their motivations in using sherds, and perhaps more precisely certain parts of vessels, shapes our sizes, as writing material. Were these sherds really a cheap substitute for papyrus, often thought of a being expensive? Are they reserved for text of lesser importance and/or short-term use? Other questions concern the extent to which the redaction on ostraca might have influenced the form of the text (layout, length, writing size, etc.), the circumstances which lead to privileging the use of hieratic, demotic or Greek (and later Greek or Coptic, respectively Coptic of Arabic), or whether some text types are only attested in one language/script. Finally, given that the place of discovery is in close vicinity to an Egyptian temple, one has to determine the role the writers and recipients of texts written on ostraca played within the religious, social and economic institution that this sanctuary constituted in the Graeco-roman era, and then the monastery which was established there during the later phases of its occupation.
A first phase of funding by SCRIPTA (AAP2) has allowed not only the constitution of an interdisciplinary research team uniting philologists specialising in the different languages/scripts used (classic Egyptian, Demotic, Coptic, Greek and Arabic) and a ceramologist, but also to study the ostraca, now housed in the magazine building of the Supreme Council of Antiquities near the site. We have also created an Excel file in order to unite the relevant information into which several thousand ostraca have already been entered. This file will soon be transformed into an online database (at first with limited access) in order to simplify the exchange between the team members. However, the considerable increase in the material during the last campaigns – it now surpasses 12.000 inscribed sherds –, makes it necessary to spend more time on site to continue the research.