Ancient Email: Letter on Pottery Fragment Dates Back 2,600 Years

Mike Rogoff
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Mike Rogoff

How do you talk with the boss when you have a beef? A single broken pottery fragment 2,600 years old, inscribed with a full 14-line letter in ancient Hebrew, shows that not much has changed over the millennia.

The voices of history are typically those of rulers, generals and court historians. The little guy is seldom heard. This ostracon, as an inscribed potsherd is called, was discovered in 1960, in the excavation of a 7th-century BCE Judean fort on the southern Mediterranean shore between Jaffa and Ashdod; and the plaint in this makeshift ceramic notepad could as well have been a desperate email.

The shard was found at what seems to have been an outpost of the port town of Yavneh-Yam, during the reign of the biblical king Josiah. Scholars are divided, however, as to who controlled the garrison: the king in Jerusalem or the pharaoh reasserting Egyptian power along the coastal plain.

The original name of the fort is unknown, but the excavators dubbed it “Metzad Hashavyahu” (“Fort Hashavyahu”), based on the personal name appearing on several ostraca unearthed there.

Our ostracon is trapezoid in shape, 20 centimeters (8 inches) high, 7.5 cm (3 inches) wide at the top, and 16.5 cm (6.5 inches) at its widest, near the bottom.

The bottom right-hand corner of the fragment is missing, leaving significant gaps in the last four lines of the missive.

While the shape and dimensions of the ostracon help visualize it, it is the timbre of the letter that makes it so unusual, even endearing.

The ostracon speaks

Museums give pride of place to grand archaeological artifacts like royal structures or sarcophagi, ornamental objects (the more gold the better), cultic implements, statuary, and so on. But nothing reaches through the millennia quite like the written word. Whether on an official papyrus, a stone plaque or monument, or a simple piece of pottery, it engenders the feeling that the ancients have reached out to us – or that we have been allowed to eavesdrop on some far-off private moment.

The letter, apparently dictated to a trained scribe, is from a farm-worker. His supervisor alleges that the worker has not fulfilled his obligation – perhaps he owes a quota of work-time on royal farmland, or a portion of his own crop to be delivered to the garrison, or maybe he was just caught slacking on the job.

The supervisor has confiscated the man’s garment and is holding it as surety until the obligation is met.

The farm-hand, feeling he has been wrongly accused, has gone over the head of the supervisor and written directly to the governor (of the fort, of the area – this can't quite be elucidated) begging him to intervene on his behalf.

Let the ancient words tell their own tale:

Let my lord, the governor, listen to the word of his servant. Your servant is a reaper. Your servant was in Hasar-'Asam, and your servant reaped, and finished, and stored (the grain) during the days prior to the sabbath. When your servant had completed the reaping, and stored (the grain) during these days, Hoshabyahu ben-Shobi arrived, and he confiscated the garment of your servant when I had completed the reaping. It is already days since he took the garment of your servant. And all my brothers—who are reaping with me—can testify on my behalf…

If I am innocent of any wrong, [give back] my garment; and if not, it is the governor's right to [consider my case] and send word to him so that he restores the garment of your servant. And do not let [the plea of your servant] be displeasing to him . . .

(Translated by K.C. Hanson, adapted from W.F. Albright (1969))

How do we know a scribe wrote it, not our unhappy reaper? One clue is the fine penmanship. Another is use of the conventional formal opening (“Let my lord…”), which echoes a biblical passage in which David pleads to be reconciled with King Saul (“…let my lord the king hear the words of his servant,” 1 Sam. 26:19).

The translation of “days prior to the sabbath” has not gone unchallenged. Some scholars read the passage as “before my rest”. But if “sabbath” is correct, this letter may constitute the earliest mention of the Sabbath day outside the Bible.

In the dispute between the worker and the supervisor, the reaper seems to have the support of biblical law. 

Here is the passage from Exodus 22:“If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep?

It seems reasonable that the three principals – the worker, the supervisor and the governor – were all aware of that injunction.

The ostracon is displayed in the Archaeology wing of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The ostracon found at Mesad Hashavyahu, bearing a plaint in ancient Hebrew writing.Credit: Hanay, Wikimedia Commons
A script of the writing on the Metzad Hashavyahu ostracon.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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