The scholarly world is abuzz. During at least the past 20 years, and more likely during the last 33 years, more than a thousand potsherds inscribed in Aramaic have come onto the antiquities market. About 800 of these have now been published.1 They are richly informative—one inscribed sherd even refers to a previously unknown temple to the Israelite God. Yet this article is the first popular presentation of these inscriptions in English.
In ancient times, potsherds were used as a kind of notepaper; the scholarly name for inscribed sherds is ostraca. The newly published ostraca all date to the fourth century B.C., the period of transition from the end of the Achaemenid (Persian) empire to the beginning of the Hellenistic period.
Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, which were acquired largely by official institutions in Jordan and in Israel, the new Aramaic ostraca have ended up in a variety of places and in numerous private collections, which makes them much more difficult to study as a whole. We are nevertheless in great debt to all the private collectors who have allowed their collections, large and small, to be studied and published.
The majority of the ostraca are simply accounting notes—probably to register taxes, paid mostly in kind—that were placed in a royal storeroom. They generally appear to be drafts that would have been recopied at the end of a month on a leather or papyrus roll.