The Ostraca of the Kerameikos Excavation in Athens
From the hoard in the Kerameikos: a small selection of Ostraca-made of fine ceramics against Megakles and Themistocles
Through ostracism, the Athenians of the 5th century BC were able to banish citizens without further explanation. Each year in January, they decided whether a collection of ostraca (ostracophoria) was to take place or not. By simple majority, they set a day in March for voting. The time until then was used for political propaganda.
In the Agora, the political centre, the citizens then wrote a name, usually with a sharp tool, on a shard (ostracon) before entering a delimited district. There, it was checked upon whether they were eligible to vote – and that they cast only one shard. A quorum of 6,000 votes was probably required. Those who received the simple majority had to leave Attica for ten years within ten days. Their property remained untouched, and upon their return, they were able to retake their place in public life.
The first ostracism was performed in 487 BC It concerned Hipparchos, a relative of the banished tyrant Hippias. The following year Megakles from the family of the Alcmeonids had to leave the city. In 484 BC it was Xanthippos, Pericles’ father. In 482 BC, the ostracisation of Aristides decided his quarrel with Themistocles over building a fleet against the Persian threat. The ostracophoria of 471 BC led to the second exile of Megakles, to which many accused of a garish lifestyle. The main rival was again Themistocles, who then had to leave Athens the following year. The ostracisation of the conservative Kimon 461 BC marked the transition to more democracy, and the banishment of Thucydides Melesiou around 442 BC was a political decision, this time in favour of Pericles. Other ostracisms cannot be dated with certainty. The rivals Nikias and Alkibiades united their influence against the demagogue Hyperbolos in 416 BC. Because this result was apparently not wanted, and the process was thus discredited, no further ostracophoria were performed.
Purpose of the ostracism
Constitutional theorists interpreted the ostracism law as an emergency brake against potential tyrants in the 4th century BC, but the set course, the one-year restriction, and the lenient punishment did not make the ostracism a means that was a suitable remedy against an acute threat. It is much rather a political ritual, a sword of Damocles over all who strived to be more than the people allowed them to be.
Importance of the Ostraca
As immediate testimonies, the ostraca shed light on historical events and daily political discussions or enrich our knowledge of the persons who were in the public eye in the 5th century BC. The ostraca are also an important source for the prevalence of written language or the development of language and writing. Thus, some pronunciation rules are derived from spelling mistakes, and the evolution of the letters from Attic to Ionic forms can easily be traced. Archaeology benefits, among other things, when dating vessels of daily use.
Ostraca in Kerameikos
So far over 10,500 ostraca have been found, around 9,000 of which in the German Kerameikos excavation. Most of them stem from a backfilled cut-off meander of the Eridanos. They are closely connected through numerous adjustments and therefore constitute a closed complex. As a hoard, they are representative for the vote of 471 BC and shed light on the leading men, the political situation, and pottery at that time.
Some things are only revealed at second glance: under the final writing there is a very fine preliminary sketch of the name and an unclear further note relating to the (land?) “on the other side.” Slide to cross-fade the photo and the sketch.
Publications of the Kerameikos ostraca
The hoard of 1966-1069 has only been published in part and under certain aspects, because its sheer volume and complexity, the never fully completed assembly of the roughly 20,000 individual fragments and the condition of the writing on the in part extremely weathered surfaces have repeatedly delayed the detailed presentation of the material.
Franz Willemsen, the late excavator, was not able to present the publication himself. It was passed over to Stefan Brenne in 1995 and was almost completed in 2000 after a period of funding by the German Research Foundation in 2004, a project financed by the German Archaeological Institute in Giessen was launched to carry out the remaining work and print.
Every ostracon bears an individual inscription and is therefore documented in such a way that further questions can be asked and answered based on the publication. Two volumes with 500 pages each are planned.
The text volume consists of three parts: A brief classification on the hoards and the characteristics and the problems of the material; catalogue of the approximately 1,600 ostraca that belong together in more than 500 groups due to alignment, belonging to the same vessel or the handwriting; individual catalogue with an illustration of the text as well as archaeological and epigraphic description. The volume with the illustrations contains characteristic vase profiles and sketched or photographed illustrations of all ostraca, sorted according to the groups or the individual catalogue. The volumes that have been long anticipated by experts will be published in the German Archaeological Institute’s series “Kerameikos. Excavation results” in 2016.
- E. Vanderpool, Ostracism at Athens, in Semple Lectures II 6 (1973) 217-270.
- D. J. Phillips, Athenian Ostracism, in G. H. R. Horsley (ed.), Hellenika (1982) 21-43.
- M. L. Lang, Ostraka. Agora XXV (1990).
- S. Brenne, Ostrakismos und Prominenz in Athen (2001).
- S. Brenne, Die Ostraka, in: P. Siewert (ed.), Ostrakismos-Testimonien I (2002) 36-166.