Ancient Aramaic Business Records

Fourth-century B.C.E. ostraca from Idumea

Today businesses are increasingly relying on sophisticated computer software to document transactions and track fiscal performance. But in fourth-century B.C.E. Idumea, about 40 miles southwest of Jerusalem, business records were kept by writing in black ink on ostraca (broken pieces of pottery).


This ancient Aramaic ostracon records the delivery of barley and wheat in the fourth year of the reign of the Persian king Artaxerxes III. Photo: Institute for the Study of Aramaic Papyri.

As Ada Yardeni explains in “2,000 Ancient Aramaic Business Scribbles (including the delivery of 30 mice)” in the September/October 2014 issue of BAR, these inscribed ostraca provide us with a window into the agricultural, economic and social life in the Hebron hills in the fourth century.

We have about 2,000 ostraca with inscriptions in Aramaic, the language the Jews brought back from Babylon following the end of the Babylonian exile in 538 B.C.E. Many of the ostraca record the delivery of products to and from storehouses and include the year of the present ruler’s reign. Idumea and Judea were under Persian rule at this time until the empire fell to Alexander the Great around 333 B.C.E.

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While the Aramaic ostraca mainly record the delivery of wheat, barley and straw, they also document the delivery of everything from olive oil to workers to even mice! 600 personal names—one hundred of these Edomite and a large group Arabic—also appear on the ostraca. In the fourth century, the population of the Hebron hills was indeed diverse, with many engaged in agricultural practices.

The majority of the fourth-century Aramaic ostraca—about 1,760 of them—are unprovenanced, the product of Bedouin looting. Should they be published? About this complicated question, author Ada Yardeni writes:

Those objecting to the publication of unprovenanced inscriptions should ask themselves if this material, which sheds light on many aspects of daily life in this area in this period—vastly enriching our knowledge—should be hidden or buried. I think it would be a huge mistake to ignore the information revealed by these texts.

Take a closer look at some of the ancient Aramaic ostraca from Idumea by reading the full article “2,000 Ancient Aramaic Business Scribbles (including the delivery of 30 mice)” by Ada Yardeni in the September/October 2014 issue of BAR.

BAS Library Members: Read “2,000 Ancient Aramaic Business Scribbles (including the delivery of 30 mice)” by Ada Yardeni as it appears in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related content in Bible History Daily:

Tel Maresha Caves Reveal Lost World of the Idumeans

Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem

Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription

Ancient Military Correspondence: Send Wine

Computer Program Learning to Read Paleo-Hebrew Letters

Ancient Coins and Looting

The Importance of Bible Artifacts Found Outside the Trench: The Moabite Stone


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  • Kurt says

    Ancient Potsherds Confirm the Biblical Record
    The Bible is the inspired Word of God. (2 Timothy 3:16) What it says about people, places, and religious and political situations of ancient times is accurate. The authenticity of the Scriptures by no means depends upon archaeological discoveries, although such findings do confirm or illuminate our understanding of the Biblical record.
    The most numerous items found by archaeologists during excavations of ancient sites are potsherds, or broken pieces of pottery. These fragments of earthenware are also referred to as ostraca, from the Greek word for “shell, sherd.” Pottery fragments served as inexpensive writing materials in many places in the ancient Middle East, including Egypt and Mesopotamia. Ostraca were used for recording contracts, accounts, sales, and so forth, just as memo pads and sheets of paper are used today. Generally written with ink, the texts on ostraca varied from just one word to several dozen lines or columns.
    Archaeological excavations in Israel have uncovered numerous ostraca from Biblical times. Three collections dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries B.C.E. are of special interest because they confirm various details of historical information found in the Bible. They are the Samaria ostraca, the Arad ostraca, and the Lachish ostraca. Let us take a closer look at each of these collections:

  • Matt says

    Scholars accepting unprovenanced items also encourages looting and theft from archaeological sites, and undocumented “excavations” for the black market, so some (including some influential scholars, as well as, I believe, the Israeli Antiquities Authority) insist that they should be ignored in favour of well documented artefacts to try to put a stop to the illegal trade. On the other hand, as this case shows, ignoring these items would in some cases lead to missing a substantial source of evidence.

  • CB says

    It could be the the word, as such, has just been coined! However, ‘provenance’ is the word used to describe the authentication of antique items, so one may assume that the author is asking about acceptance of artefacts that do not have precise authentication, but that may hold a great deal of interesting information – even if some of them late turn out to be forgeries!

    Hope that helps! 🙂

    Blessings, and shalom.

  • Freddy says

    I cannot find a definition for “unprovenanced”, can you help?

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