Mario Capasso
Ostraca unearthed at the Soknopaios temple in Soknopaiou Nesos, Egypt.
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updated 12/28/2010 8:22:06 PM ET 2010-12-29T01:22:06

Broken pieces of clay pottery have revealed the names of dozens of Egyptian priests who served at the temple of a crocodile god, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) announced.

Engraved with text dating back to the Roman period, the small potsherds have been found by Italian archaeologists on the west side of the temple dedicated to the crocodile god Soknopaios in Soknopaiou Nesos, an Egyptian village in the Fayoum oasis.

Called ostraca from the Greek word ostrakon (meaning "shell") the inscribed pot fragments “have been very helpful in illuminating the religious practices and the prosopography of Greco-Roman Egypt," the SCA said in a statement.

"We found some 150 ostraca. The majority was inscribed with the names of the priests who served at the temple," Mario Capasso, professor of Papyrology at Salento University, told Discovery News.

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"A recurring name is that of a priest named Satabous," Capasso said.

According to Capasso, who co-directed the excavation with Paola Davoli, associate professor of Egyptology at Salento University, each ostracon was used in a sort of ballot draw to determine specific religious roles in the temple.

"The ostraca help our understanding of the mechanism of role assignments in the Soknopaios priesthood during the Roman period. Basically, the priest whose name was written on the drawn ostracon was destined to cover a specific religious role," Capasso said.

Founded by the Ptolemaic king Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309 B.C.–246 B.C.) around 250 B.C., Soknopaiou Nesos, "the island of Soknopaios," is well known to scholars for the amount of papyri and other inscribed material found among its ruins.

Inhabited for about five centuries, the site reached its peak during the first and second century AD thanks to a major trade route. It was abandoned during the mid-third century AD.

The ostraca, which are basically one of the temple’s archives, were originally kept in a storeroom situated in a courtyard in front of the Soknopaios temple.

"Most likely, they were thrown out of the building during a clandestine excavation at the end of the 19th century," Capasso said.

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