One of the larger items in the CREWS project display at the Fitzwilliam Museum is this potsherd. It bears the following inscription, in Greek:
πορφυρ[ ] κο [
porphur[ ] ko [
The potsherd is from a type of amphora known as a ‘Gaza jar’ or ‘Gaza amphora’. These were popular in late antiquity, between about the fourth and seventh centuries AD, and originate from what is now Palestine. You can find out more about this kind of Amphora HERE and HERE. The picture to the left shows a complete one.
These amphorae were usually used for transporting wine, but it looks as though this one has been repurposed to transport pistachio nuts, as the label testifies. The amphora seems to have broken after use and all we have is this fragment.
The present example is probably from the sixth century, and was found in Egypt. Pistachios had been cultivated for millennia, from at least the seventh millennium BC, and come from central Asia. The word is in fact of Persian origin (compare Middle Persian pistag, Modern Persian پسته piste), and from there had been borrowed into Greek as πιστακιον ‘pistakion’.
The exact interpretation of the text we have is, however, a little more problematic. The first word of the second line looks like the word for ‘purple’. However, the ends of both words are difficult to read, and consequently it is difficult to tell if we are meant to take the two words together or not. A papyrus of the seventh century (P.Laur. 4.184), that is, from around the same time, has:
τιμ πιστακιου πορφ [
“price of purple pistachio”
Here’s a picture of that papyrus (relevant text highlighted):
And a close-up of the relevant part:
This suggests that the two words could in principle at least go together. The difficulty is of course that we don’t know what we don’t know, or in this case, what we don’t have, in the form of the rest of the inscription, so it is difficult to be sure.
Something which marks this inscription as different from that which we saw on the Aphrodite cup sherd (see HERE) is the nature of the Greek script used. That inscription used what we know as capital letters. At the time when that was written in the fifth century BC, ‘capital’ letters were the norm, certainly for the kinds of texts that are preserved for us on pots and on inscriptions. Over time, however, cursive forms developed for more informal use, as here. In fact, many of the forms of the letters in use in this text are not far removed from those in use today.
One letter that is noticeably different from that used today is the sigma in the word for ‘pistachio’. The shape of the lower case sigma, or ‘s’, that we are used to is ‘σ’ (at the beginning or in the middle of a word). In this text, however, we have something much more like a ‘c’ in Roman letters (circled in red above). This is known as the ‘lunate’ sigma, so called because it is the shape of a crescent moon. It was widely used in antiquity to represent the letter sigma.
You might wonder what something written in Greek script is doing in Egypt. However, from the late fourth century BC on Egypt was ruled by a Greek dynasty. Greek became the prestige language, and was used for all manner of business purposes. When the Romans took over, they continued to use Greek in Egypt, and so Greek remained in use alongside Coptic, the descendant of Ancient Egyptian, the language of the hieroglyphs, until the arrival of the Arab armies in the seventh century, at which point Arabic quickly became the dominant language. That said, Greek continued to be used in Egypt until well in the Muslim era (see, for example, HERE). Nevertheless, the era of Greek dominance of Egypt would come to an end, and this potsherd is testimony to that era as it drew to a close.
~ Robert Crellin (Research Associate on the CREWS project)