Writing culture and commercial life in late antique Ephesos

New ostraca and inscriptions on coarse ware pottery

This research project is focused on about 60 recently discovered pottery sherds with incised inscriptions that were uncovered during excavations from 2011 to 2015 in the remains of late antique Ephesos (5th–7th century CE). An initial investigation has shown that they are of crucial importance for the understanding of the writing culture and economic life in late antique Ephesos.

The find groups

The new pottery sherds with incised inscriptions can be divided into two groups: one assemblage was discovered in front of the entrance area of the church that was built on the foundations of the Serapeion in the 4th/5th century; the other was excavated in the late antique-medieval city quarter south of the Church of Mary. About half of the pottery sherds were apparently used for jotting down short business letters, of instructions or list-type statements – they must therefore be regarded as ostraca. The other half constitute inscriptions of ownership or contents information that were etched into objects of daily use (instrumenta domestica), in our case into the surface of (once) functional coarse wares.

Project aims

In order to illustrate the significance of the recently found sherds with incised inscriptions, the project is pursuing the following objectives:

  • The creation of an open access online corpus that will not only make the newly found ostraca and inscriptions on coarse wares accessible but also all other previously published inscriptions from Ephesos that document daily writing and various scripts based on their typography.
  • The presentation of the newly found ostraca and inscriptions on coarse wares in the form of a comprehensive publication where various questions raised by the source material will be explored.

Innovative aspects

The Ephesian ostraca represent a substantial and in comparative terms welcome addition to our knowledge about the diffusion of the writing medium ›ostracon‹ because ostraca from other regions or cities in Asia Minor have not yet been published. The importance of this project is not limited solely to this one aspect: first of all, a systematic corpus that collates the numerous Ephesian examples of scripts and daily writing has long been lacking. Secondly, from a historical perspective it must be taken into consideration that the newly found ostraca and inscriptions on coarse wares are indicative of brisk commercial activity in the immediate vicinity of church-related institutions opening up an entirely new aspect of late antique urban life in Ephesos. Finally, the use of ostraca as documented in this context are an important contribution to the understanding of the epigraphic habit in late antique Ephesos.