Ostraka: a historical perspective

Michael van Hoogenhuyze

In ancient times, if a resident of Athens wanted to eliminate a political opponent, he (women were excluded from the political arena) could scratch his opponent’s name on a shard and submit it to the city council. When one’s name had been written the most, that person could be ordered to leave the city for ten years. Often the person had gained too much power. That was thus a means of balancing the political structure of the city. Such a shard was called ostracon, hence the term ‘ostracism’.

An ostrakon bearing the name “Aristeides son of Lysimachus” (482 BC) , displayed in the Ancient Agora Museum in Athens

Shards, the remains of pots and tiles were thus given an important role in society. Remains of lost artefacts gained an important role in politics, by gaining an additional sign, the name of a political person. In historical research, shards can play an important role in various ways. They tell us about material use, design and social relationships. Invariably, historians find themselves in a situation where they realize the importance of these ceramic leftovers, often the only material to guide their analysis.

Ostraca were not only used as “anti-voting” materials. In Egypt, tile remnants were used as sketching or practice materials, as hieroglyphics required effort and space. The placement of the characters in square segments and practice for novice sculptors meant that scribes constantly used sketching material. In addition, we find shards being used in Alexandria, the city of scholars. Students who had to practice writing, including in Greek, also used shards. Paper was not yet known and papyrus was too costly to be used as draft material.

In the Middle Ages arose the custom of scratching away texts on parchment when they were no longer considered relevant. A new text was then written. Nowadays, it turns out it is possible to uncover the scratched-away layers under ultraviolet light. Thus, even these carriers turn out to contain more information than expected. These documents are known as ‘palimpsests’.

In Rome we have known for centuries the phenomenon of ‘talking statues’. This is another example of how ancient scraps acquire new meanings. Under existing statues in Rome in the seventeenth century, people wrote poems or mocking statements with which they anonymously criticized politics in Rome. Sometimes people would place texts under another statue in Rome that responded to it. Consequently the statues acquired a surprising political signature. A famous one was the ‘Pasquino Group’, dating to ca. 200–150 BCE. It is a severely damaged remnant of a statue of Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus.

Through the disappearance of cultural environments, residues such as the shards received little attention. Except when people re-used them deliberately, for their relative indestructibility and the fact that they were accessible waste material. Thus, in a given culture, we can unexpectedly discover remains with new meanings. They are fragments and testimonies that make progress, rediscovery and preservation possible. An object becomes irreparably damaged but its remains receive a new purpose, through a text or a drawing, adding meaning to it. Scraps become an affordable and a rich medium at once.

The Cubist collages provide another relation. These works from the early 20th century appear to be collages of shards. But in that experimental art form we encounter unexpected new language elements such as musical notes or newspaper fragments. The incised shard is thus the model of one of the smallest units in our culture: a remainder, accidentally created, usually by accident, with a new message scratched into it.

Mike Rijnierse makes use of this phenomenon, carefully dissecting and polishing a neglected satellite dish into a new object. Blossoming, gliding and puffing forms, ‘Ostraka’ explores the once buzzing hall in an continuing gesture. In the work of theorist Paul Virilio, Rijnierse encountered the metaphor ‘The panopticon exploded’. According to Virilio, the Earth is now surrounded by a physical network of surveillance technology which renders the Earth trapped in a husk of space debris. They are the debris left behind by an overly careless humanity. While we conquer new space we watch the ruins we leave behind grow.

representation of satellites and space debris (Satellite eXplorer, 2023)

This phenomenon is perhaps the same one that Walter Benjamin interpreted in Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus.

‘A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.’
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940.

‘Angelus Novus’ (Paul Klee, 1920)

It is noticeable how even remnants of an old machine can convey a poetic expression,
in which technology can be more than a contraption to transmit data. Poetry, as an addition, can enrich the culture of technology into a form of play.

Michael van Hoogenhuyze
Leiden, September 2023