Samaria Ostraca: Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient Kingdom of Israel was a powerful ancient state, but little is known about daily life in it. In this lesson, we'll look at some important artifacts from this kingdom and see what they tell us about ancient Israelite civilization.

The Kingdom of Israel

The country of Israel once had a different name. Any guess what is was? It was Judea. But before it was Judea, it was the Kingdom of Israel, or at least part of it was. What is now Israel roughly corresponds to an ancient United Kingdom of Israel, which according to Jewish traditions, broke into two separate kingdoms in the 10th century BCE. The southern half became the Kingdom of Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, while the northern half was the Kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Samaria. If you've heard the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, this is the city he would have been from.

The Kingdom of Israel thrived for roughly 200 years before being conquered by the Assyrians. It was an important period in Jewish history, but we know relatively little about this ancient kingdom. So, it's pretty exciting whenever a major archeological discovery is made. One of the most intriguing modern discoveries is the Samaria Ostraca, a series of potsherds from the capital city. They say that one person's trash is another's treasure; well in this case a few pieces of trash could be national treasures for an entire people.

The Samaria Ostraca

In the early 20th century, archeologists in Samaria were excavating the ancient public square of the Israelite capital city when they discovered 102 ostraca. An ostracon is a broken piece of a ceramic vessel like a pot or vase. These ostraca are interesting enough in that they have been associated with at least five types of amphorae, or Greek-style vases for transporting liquids, but that's not their real significance. What makes these ostraca really special is that they have writing on them.

Vases of the kind that may have been in Israel at the time
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Of the 102 potsherds, 63 are legible, giving us a fascinating glimpse into the ancient Kingdom of Israel. We have writing samples from Judah at this time, but very little from its northern neighbor, so the discovery is very significant. The writing is a form of Paleo-Hebrew, which is an ancient variation of what would become the biblical Hebrew language. Some of this writing is very beautiful. One of the most famous shards for example, called the ''Barley Letter'', contains some of the finest examples of the Paleo-Hebrew script, written in graceful and artful strokes. It is, however, worth noting that some of the spellings in the Samaria Ostraca are different than spellings used in the Kingdom of Judah, indicating a cultural division between them.

Drawing of the Samaria Ostraca
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So, what does the writing say? The inscriptions on the ostraca are lists of items being shipped in those containers, sort of like a rough ledger. For the most part, most of the amphorae seem to have contained olive oil or wine, although there is at least one that mentions barley. In addition, most of them contain names of either recipients or producers, and archeologists disagree as to whether these shards represent amphorae that were entering Samaria as taxes from outlying villages, or Samaria as payment or gifts to royal officials outside the city. While this doesn't give us a lot in terms of verbs and vocabulary, it does offer a fascinating glimpse into Samaritan life. It has also helped us fill in the map, as many ostraca list place names of villages in the Kingdom of Israel and give archeologists a clue as to where they were.

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