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Kelsey in Focus: Installment #2

Clay ostrakon inscribed in ink with excerpts from Psalm 104. 7th–8th century CE. Egypt. Carl Schmidt purchase, 1936. KM 25165.

Slipped clay ostrakon inscribed in ink with quotations from Psalms. 7th–8th century CE. Egypt. Carl Schmidt purchase, 1936. KM 25049.

Limestone ostrakon inscribed in ink with a literary letter of Severus. 7th–8th century CE. Egypt. Carl Schmidt purchase, 1936. KM 25120.

Coptic Ostraka: Writings from Christian Egypt

Curated by Terry G. Wilfong, Director and Curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections

This installment of Kelsey in Focus presents a group of rarely exhibited Coptic ostraka in honor of the University Library's exhibition Written Culture of Christian Egypt: Coptic Manuscripts from the University of Michigan Collection, curated by visiting scholars Alin Suciu and Frank Feder. Coptic ostraka are broken pottery and limestone chips inscribed with the language of Christian Egypt. Ostraka were often used for informal notations of everyday life, the ones exhibited here record literary texts instead and possibly come from monastic contexts.

The two pottery ostraka preserve texts from the Psalms, used in different ways. The larger ostrakon contains an excerpt from Psalm 104. The scribe has corrected a copying mistake, indicating that this might have been been a school text. The smaller pottery ostrakon collects quotes from various Psalms, perhaps as reference for later use in sermons or letters. Note the crosses that mark the beginnings of the texts, a common feature on Coptic ostraka. 

The limestone ostrakon preserves a literary composition by an author named Severus (possibly the well-known Severus of Antioch, ca. 459/465-538), in which he uses a vivid metaphor about hunting dogs, tracking their prey by scent, to gently reproach a colleague. The handwriting is slightly cursive but beautifully legible and stands out against the white limestone background. Monastic settlements in Egypt were often built in and around Pharaonic tombs carved from white limestone, which suggests a monastic origin for this text. 

The Coptic alphabet is the script used for writing the Coptic language. The first 23 letters are based on the Greek alphabet, followed by letters borrowed from Egyptian Demotic.