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ERC Project ELEPHANTINE Exhibition at the Harvard University: Pots as Post-Its: Daily Life Captured on Ancient Egyptian Ostraca


The exhibition is based on the research results of the ERC-Project ELEPHANTINE of the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and is on show from 2 May to 6 September 2018 at the Harvard University Houghton Library in Cambridge, U.S.A.

Ostraca (singular: ostracon) are pieces of broken pottery or limestone flakes used to record writing in ancient Egypt. Ostraca were much cheaper than papyrus and were used as abundantly as our modern day Post-It note. Many of the ostraca in Houghton Library’s collection are receipts, records of goods, taxes, and personal letters written in Demotic, Coptic and Greek, languages spoken in ancient Egypt.

From 1877 to 1878, Henry Williamson Haynes (1831-1912), a Harvard graduate and a university professor of Ancient Greek and Latin, traveled to Egypt and purchased several ostraca on the island of Elephantine in the southernmost part of Egypt. Brought back to the United States by Haynes, they travelled from the Nile to the Charles and finally to the Fogg Museum at Harvard after his death, and ultimately to Houghton Library.

The ostraca found on Elephantine not only preserve information about daily life on the island, but also show us its uniqueness as a multicultural society.

Elephantine is a small island situated at the southern border between Egypt and the ancient kingdom of Nubia (modern Sudan). Its settlement was of strategic and economic importance, with a very diverse population, speaking different languages, and comprising different ethnicities, cultures and religions over more than 4000 years of history. Fortunately, several thousand papyri, manuscripts, and ostraca survive on this island describing the everyday life of its inhabitants. The languages and scripts on which these artifacts were written range from hieroglyphs, Hieratic, Demotic, Aramaic, Greek, Coptic to Arabic and others, and date from the Old Kingdom (3rd millennium BC) to the Arab Conquest (end of 1st millennium AD). The texts from Elephantine are highly interesting, distinguished texts of interdisciplinary relevance. These largely unpublished manuscripts are enriching and altering our view of the island’s cultural history and thereby also that of ancient Egypt in general. In addition, our understanding of Elephantine can be connected and entangled (as it is termed in the field of global history) with questions of global historic concern.

All the ostraca on display are from the collections of Houghton Library and some loans from the Semitic Museum. A possible reconstruction of an Elephantine pot is also given with a sherd, which was reused to write a receipt for the payment of a kite.

The exhibition is complemented by a multimedia station including a film about the research of Elephantine and interactive 3-D Scans of the Elephantine ostraca.

The exhibition is based on the research results of the ERC-Project ELEPHANTINE.

The exhibition was guest curated by Prof. Dr. Verena Lepper, Principal Investigator of the ERC-Starting Grant Project ELEPHANTINE, and Curator for Egyptian and Oriental Papyri at the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, and Houghton Library Visiting Fellow/Joan Nordell Fellow 2017-2018.  She curated this exhibition together with Andréa Martinez, Julia Puglisi and Hilo Sugita, all students in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University.