An ostracon (Greek: ὄστρακον ostrakon, plural ὄστρακα ostraka) is a piece of pottery (or stone), usually broken
off from a vase or other earthenware vessel. In archaeology, ostraca may contain scratched-in words or other forms of writing which may give clues as to the time when the piece was in use.
Egyptian limestone and potsherd ostraca
Anything with a smooth surface could be used as a writing surface. Generally discarded material, ostraca were cheap, readily available and therefore frequently used for writings of an ephemeral nature such as messages, prescriptions,
receipts, students exercises and notes: pottery shards, limestone flakes, thin fragments of other stone types, etc., but limestone sherds, being flaky and of a lighter color, were most common. Ostraca were typically small, covered with just a few words or a small picture drawn in ink; but the tomb of the craftsman Sennedjem at Deir el-Medina contained an enormous ostracon inscribed with the Story of Sinuhe.
The importance of ostraca for Egyptology is immense. The combination of their physical nature and the Egyptian climate have preserved texts, from the medical to the mundane, which in other cultures were lost. These can often serve as better witnesses of everyday life than literary treatises preserved in libraries.
Deir el-Medina Medical Ostraca[[New Kingdom|]]
The many ostraca found at Deir el-Medina provide a deeply compelling view into the medical workings of the New Kingdom. These ostraca have shown that, like other Egyptian communities, the workmen and inhabitants of Deir el-Medina received care through a combination of medical treatment, prayer, and magic. Nevertheless, the records at Deir el-Medina indicates some level of division, as records from the village note both a “physician” who saw patients and prescribed treatments, and a “scorpion charmer” who specialized in magical cures for scorpion stings. The ostraca from Deir el-Medina also differed in their circulation. Magical spells and remedies were widely distributed among the workmen; there are even several cases of spells being sent from one worker to another, with no “trained” intermediary. Written medical texts appear to have been much rarer, however, with only a handful of ostraca containing prescriptions, indicating that the trained physician mixed the more complicated remedies himself. There are also several documents that show the writer sending for medical ingredients, but it is unknown whether these were sent according to a physician’s prescription, or to fulfill a home remedy.
Saqqara Dream Ostraca
From 1964–1971, Bryan Emery excavated at Saqqara in search of Imhotep's tomb; instead, the extensive catacombs of animal mummies were uncovered. Apparently it was a pilgrim site, with as many as 1½ million ibis birds interred (as well as cats, dogs, rams, and lions). This 2nd-century BC site contained extensive pottery debris from the site offerings of the pilgrims. Emery's excavations uncovered the "Dream Ostraca", created by a scribe named Hor of Sebennytos. A devotee of the god Thoth, he lived adjacent to Thoth's sanctuary at the entrance to the North Catacomb and worked as a "proto-therapist", advising and comforting clients. He transferred his divinely-inspired dreams onto ostraca. The Dream Ostraca are 65 Demotic texts written on pottery and limestone.