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The Heshbon Ostraca

Heshbon Ostracon #2
Click the image to view an enhanced version.
When people first began to invent writing systems, they did not have a plentiful and cheap supply of paper to write on, like we do today. They used a variety of materials on which to keep records, preserve religious and literary texts, and transmit laws.

Many people in the ancient Near East and Egypt used treated skins (or parchment) or papyrus (a kind of paper made from reeds) to write on. Both, however, were expensive, and papyrus was made only in Egypt and had to be imported. Therefore, only really important documents were written on those materials: literary and religious texts, contracts, important letters. For everyday use it became much more common to use writing material that was cheap and plentiful: broken pieces, or sherds, of clay jars.

Today we call those pieces of clay with writing on them ostraca, singular ostracon. The word comes from the Greek ostrakon, meaning "shell, sherd." Most ostraca were written with ink, but some were incised with a sharp instrument. School lessons, short letters, receipts, and other administrative documents were written on these clay sherds.

Archaeological excavations in Israel and Jordan have uncovered numerous ostraca from biblical times, among which the following are the most well-known:

1. An important group of administrative ostraca have been found at the site of Samaria, the capitol of the ancient kingdom of Israel. These date from the period called Iron Age II, around the 8th century BCE. They are written in the old Hebrew script (adapted from the Phoenician script);

2. A large group of ostraca have been found at Arad, and deal with the administration of the kingdom of Judah in the 8th to the 6th centuries BCE.

3. The Lachish ostraca were found at the site of ancient Lachish, a city of Judah, dating to around 600 BCE, shortly before Judah fell to the Babylonians. Many of these are letters relating to military preparations for invasion.

Heshbon Ostracon #4
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4. Ostraca in Ammonite and Edomite have been found in Jordan, and date to the 7th-6th centuries BCE. The Heshbon ostraca shown here belong to this group of texts.

5. Aramaic ostraca from the Persian period (6th-4th centuries BCE) have been found in a number of places including Arad and Beersheba. Aramaic was at that time the administrative language of Palestine.

6. Ostraca written in Hebrew square script and Aramaic and dating to the Roman period have been found at Qumran (the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls), Masada, Murabba`at and Herodium. Some are writing exercises, others are tags with letters or names, and a few are contracts.

Heshbon Ostraca #2 and #4

The two ostraca shown here were found at Tell Hesban (biblical Heshbon), Jordan, an ancient tell southwest of Amman, Jordan. The finding of #4 is related here by an associate of the West Semitic Research Project, James Battenfield:

"I was on my first dig in the Near East, and was a square supervisor with an eleven-man crew. Along with my Arab counterpart, Mr. Adib Abu Shmeis, now with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, we were working some 10 meters (about 30 feet) down in a deep sounding pit. Our dig strategy was to reach bedrock in order to clarify the stratigraphic "table of contents" for the tell. The broken potsherd with writing on it was among many pails of pottery that we brought out of Square B.1 for analysis."

The layer in question was dated to Iron II/Persian by Chief Archaeologist James A. Sauer's reading of the pottery. Written in Ammonite cursive script, the text dates to the end of the 7th or beginning of the 6th century BC. Comparative Ammonite scripts are (1) the cursive of the Deir `Alla text, early 7th century BC, and (2) the Tell Siran bottle inscription from the beginning of the 6th century BC. Heshbon IV is roughly contemporary with Tell Siran.

The eleven-line inscription is an economic text listing amounts of grain, cattle, flour and wine, which Prof. Cross of Harvard University calls a tax receipt.

Ostracon #2 is much more fragmentary and difficult to interpret. It belongs to the same period as Ostracon #4, but has been identified by some as Aramaic script and by others as Ammonite script.

Heshbon is mentioned a number of times in the Bible as a city belonging at various times to the Amorite king Sihon (Numbers 21:26), to the Israelite tribes of Reuben (Numbers 32:37) or Gad (Joshua 21:39), and to Moab (Isaiah 15:4; Jeremiah 48:2). Excavations at the site have found Iron Age remains, including reservoirs, water conduits, cisterns, and a number of ostraca.

Photographs by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman, West Semitic Research. Courtesy Department of Antiquities, Jordan.

Commentary by Marilyn J. Lundberg and James Battenfield.

Sources: Cross, Frank Moore. "Ammonite Ostraca from Heshbon: Heshbon Ostraca IV-VIII" in Heshbon 1973: The Third Campaign at Tell Hesban (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews Univ. Press, 1975).

Geraty, Lawrence T. "Hesban," in vol. 3 of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (New York/Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997).

Lemaire, Andre, "Ostraca, Semitic," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5 (ed. D. N. Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992) 50.

Lemaire, Andre, "Ostracon," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (ed. E. M. Meyers; New York: Oxford, 1997) 189-191.

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