I think Vindolanda has to be one of my favourite places. Several things combine in that special part of Northumberland: spectacular countryside, phenomenal archaeology, and wonderful people.
Anna Willi and I were lucky enough to spend the last week at the Roman fort, staying with views of the fort walls from our bedroom windows and just a few metres from the excellent Vindolanda Museum. As always I learnt so much on our visit and saw some fabulous material. Most intriguing were the ancient puffballs which look to the untrained eye like the finds of Roman leather!
We were there primarily for a meeting of the Vindolanda tablets group – a team of around a dozen colleagues which meets twice a year in person and whose raison d’être is to pursue research on the hundreds of precious wooden writing tablets and stylus tablets from the site and to disseminate this knowledge. Our work is never completed of course, because, excitingly, new finds come out of the anaerobic layers of the excavations pretty regularly.
One of the week’s jobs was to assess the recent finds and in particular to take detailed images with a macro-lens of the most promising of the stylus tablets which we think may offer a new type of evidence for slavery at Vindolanda. It’s a grim subject and as part of drawing together material for the article we are preparing we are also studying the evidence of shackles. It was an unsettling experience trying to work out what size of neck might fit. We also explored the site for possible locations for the containment of slaves and/or prisoners.
Anna Willi took on a much more cheery task as she set about assessing the evidence for literacy and related activities at Vindolanda by matching hundreds of styluses, ink-pen nibs, wax spatulae, ink pots and seal boxes (amongst others) to their contexts with our colleague from Canada Alex Meyer (Western University). There’s a lot of work still to be done but it was a huge pleasure for Anna to have boxes of fabulous material on her desk to examine. The most cooed over object was a beautiful seal-box with enamelled flowers, but she really enjoyed finding some tiny styluses too. For more on writing equipment, Anna’s ebook is a great place to start: https://latinnowepubs.github.io/WritingEquipmentVol2/mobile/index.html
I took the opportunity to autopsy an inscribed stone that Alex Meyer, Joonas Vanhala (Turku University, Finland) and I are about to publish in the journal Britannia. Up until last week I’d only seen it via numerous images, scans and drawings. It was good to reassure ourselves that we didn’t need to add anything to our analysis. A blog about the carved stone is available here and it is about to be ‘unveiled’ in the case of new finds in the museum. It’s quite a rude one.
The main event, the meeting of the tablets group itself, was really enjoyable: we agreed on a publication strategy, received updates on the conservation and display of the tablets, found out about the work at the British Museum as part of the Writing History project which is looking at the wood, inks and wax used, and heard about the new excavations at Magna, a fort close to Vindolanda, which begin this summer. We can’t wait to find out whether there are more writing tablets there too – perhaps even with links to Vindolanda!
Huge thanks as always to Andy and Barbara Birley and all the staff at Vindolanda.
A guest blog by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow Dr Sergio España-Chamorro
Zanker’s Augustus und die Macht der Bilder (translated into English as The power of images in the Age of Augustus) is a very important book for all interested in the early Roman Empire. This book is not only about art and iconography, but also provides a clear idea about the importance of images in the creation of Augustan propaganda. This was, of course, a long lasting process that started in the Late Republic. But what about text? If the iconography was very important for Augustan propaganda, texts, and particularly inscriptions, were also a crucial element. The use of different materials, certain words, new uses in the public domain and new relationships with buildings, statues and landscapes initiated a new period of the development of Latin epigraphy.
This process not only affected Rome or Italy, but the provinces too. The creation of dozens of Augustan colonies helped to spread the Roman way of life, and also the Latin language and writing across Europe, Africa and Asia. The new fashions in self-representation motivated the exportation of this new epigraphic habit to each place in which these veterans were located. However the geographic and linguistic contexts were very different and this raises a lot of questions. How did this process take place? How was Latin and epigraphy spread through these military communities across the Roman world? What was its impact? Who exactly promoted this change? Who did not? To what extent did it affect local communities?
Research has been undertaken on the development of the Augustan epigraphic habit in individual provinces. However, a wide-scale analysis which takes in East and West has not been attempted until now. The Marie Skłodowska-Curie project IMPACTVM (Mapping the impact of the Augustan colonies on the Early Roman Empire, Grant Agreement nº 101025799) funded by the European Commission, with secondment supervisor Professor Alex Mullen, tries to answer to these questions. The scope of IMPACTVM is to analyse the developments in five triumviral or Augustan colonies along the Mediterranean as case studies:
Colonia Augusta Emerita (Mérida, Spain), capital of Lusitania.
Colonia Augusta Lugdunum (Lyon, France), capital of Gallia Lugdunensis.
Colonia Iulia Carthago (Carthage, Tunisia), capital of Africa Proconsularis.
Colonia Iulia Corinthus and colonia Augusta Archaica Patrensis (Corinth and Patras, Greece) in Achaea.
Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis (Filippoi, Greece) in Macedonia.
These colonies have been selected for geographical breadth and for their political role in the regions in which they were founded. The analysis of their epigraphic habit has complex social dimensions which must be considered using a sociolinguistic approach. From J. N. Adam’s work to the more recent analyses taken by LatinNow team, we have a clear idea how important this approach is for understanding the diversity of the ancient world, the multicultural way to deal with writing and the multilingualism of the Roman empire. For this reason, a multi-comparative and multi-disciplinary analysis of IMPACTVM will try to define the differences of the spread of Latin epigraphy in provincial colonial environments in this particular period of change. My visit this month to the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents at Oxford University has allowed me to work with the ERC-funded LatinNow and Crossreads teams and to establish the base for this sociolinguistic analysis. I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learnt and seeing the results!
A guest blog by Classics For All’s Jane Ainsworth and Hannah Walsh introduces the new project Roman Inscriptions of Britain in Schools, a collaboration between LatinNow and CfA.
During lockdown, pupils became accustomed to the view of their class on a zoom screen; a gallery of faces, or sometimes blank boxes when internet connections were struggling! The aim of Classics for All’s partnership with LatinNow, Roman Inscriptions of Britain in Schools, is to give pupils the skills and information to unlock the stories behind the gallery of individuals from Roman Britain which the Roman Inscriptions of Britain Online contains.
Our first task, then, was to think about how we could guide pupils and their teachers around the content of a website originally designed by Scott Vanderbilt nearly a decade ago for people who already used the RIB volumes, without sacrificing the quality and depth of information it contains. We needed to explain why someone would want to look at an inscription in the first place and then how and where that information can be found on the website. The videos we developed, which use accessible examples such as the Insus tombstone from Lancaster, provide an introduction to Roman inscriptions, guidance on how to read a record of an inscription and how to use RIB Online. Given the wealth of material on the site, we also needed to highlight examples from the gallery of RIB individuals whose inscriptions are content-rich and relevant to the topics from the classroom.
To support busy teachers, some of whom may have no prior experience of studying the ancient world, we knew that it would be important to provide clear lesson plans and a teaching guide to accompany our resources. Although there is enormous potential for the RIB Online corpus to enhance learning across all age groups, we decided to start our work at Key Stage 2 (ages 7–11) with lesson plans and a teacher’s guide. The ‘Romans in Britain’ forms a core part of the National Curriculum for History in England and Wales and there is also a requirement to teach local history, so these resources have been specially tailored to meet teachers’ requests for bespoke resources.
Our lesson plans start by encouraging pupils to think about the art of writing itself, and its value as evidence for a particular historical period. One task is to collect objects from around their classroom with writing on them and Alex, LatinNow’s PI, had enormous fun finding some ancient equivalents within the corpus, such as Hector’s shoe. Regina’s tombstone from South Shields then provides an ideal introduction to the rich and complex lives of people living in Roman Britain. Just like the objects they collected, pupils are encouraged to ask and answer questions about the information coming both from the text of her tombstone and from the object itself, including its production process and decoration.
The lesson plans also allow pupils to study their local history, a core part of the current National Curriculum requirements for History. There are ‘Local Lives’ lessons (powerpoints and handouts) for North, South, East, and West, where pupils use the skills they’ve learned in the introductory lessons to look in more detail at inscriptions such as Cornelius Castus and Julia Belismicus’ altar from Caerleon and follow a framework of questions to investigate the story behind the inscription. The questions made us wonder whether this altar was unveiled as a marketing opportunity as Cornelius and Julia opened a new establishment near the baths at Caerleon. Pupils then go on to investigate inscriptions from their own area, thinking about how topics such as the landscape, employment, and religion have affected, and continue to affect, local lives. Teachers can celebrate the work their pupils produce by entering it for a Young Historians Award or for accreditation in the new ‘Exploring the Ancient World’ Independent Project Qualification.
We’ve also provided a range of examples designed for any KS which support thematic teaching – have a look at our favourite examples of migration, such as Iunius Dubitatus’ shield, and evidence for children’s lives, including the pipes belonging to Catavacus and Bellicia. You can even listen to the Roman pipes being played! Next up we will be constructing resources for ‘education’ and ‘language’, which is part of Phase 2 of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain in Schools project, during which we skip to work on KS5 materials.
We don’t always have all the information about an inscription (another useful lesson for pupils – and academics! – to learn), sometimes there’s a blank screen on the zoom gallery of Roman Britain, but the hope is that this ongoing partnership between Classics for All and the LatinNow team will introduce a new audience to the different lives and stories that the Roman inscriptions of Britain contain.
LatinNow is an interdisciplinary project, which means that we take a holistic approach to epigraphy. We think it is essential to look beyond the text and consider the inscribed object along with it: without it, an inscription can lose not only its sense but also its visual and physical impact. We try to follow this approach when working on our epigraphic dataset as much as possible, but we have had to accept that it can sometimes conflict with the more traditional epigraphic categories that were established, often during the 19th century, with a focus on monumental and mostly lapidary inscriptions. Older epigraphic editions often make no mention of the inscribed monument at all, or only in a very vague manner; epigraphers only saw the texts as their remit, and since research at the time was focused on political and institutional history, lapidary inscriptions were considered to be of particular interest. One epigraphic category in particular has suffered from such pronounced priorities, that of inscribed instrumentum, or instrumentum domesticum, as it is often called – with significant consequences for Digital Epigraphy.
The term instrumentum requires some explanation. The Latin word first of all means ‘tool’, but it can be used as a collective term, a singular for plural, to describe ‘equipment’ more generally. Instrumentum domesticum can thus be understood to encompass all kinds of utensils, tools, and smaller objects that are used in a domestic environment. However, while in some languages, such as French, instrumentum can be used for small finds in general, including the uninscribed, it is mainly used as an epigraphic category in English, to describe stamps, graffiti and other texts found on small finds. To the epigrapher trained on monumental stone inscriptions, which is still how epigraphy is usually taught, the vast range of objects, materials, text types and execution techniques involved can be confusing at first: to understand them, some knowledge about the inscribed objects themselves is required, and small finds archaeology is itself a specialized skill.
The Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum provided one of the earliest systematic approaches to inscribed small finds, by dedicating specific sections entitled ‘instrumentum’ or ‘instrumentumdomesticum’ to them (e.g. CIL I.2 1491–1499, CIL XII section XXIII), and then with CIL XV a whole volume (Rome). They contain inscriptions on portable objects such as bricks, tiles, vessels made of ceramic and glass, lamps, metal ingots, finger-rings, and various objects made of silver or bronze. Over time, however, the term has become more and more vague and its use more and more inclusive, with the most comprehensive approach perhaps being that of Roman Inscriptions in Britain vol. II: under the title ‘Instrumentum domesticum (personal belongings and the like)’ it also includes non-monumental inscriptions on non-portable support such as wall graffiti and mosaic inscriptions. Based on the fact that numerically the vast majority of inscriptions on small finds are related to production and commerce, attempts have been made to claim the term instrumentum solely for the epigraphy of production and economy, but in reality, makers’ marks, religious dedications, declarations of love and accounting notes have all found a home in the instrumentum category. It has become a catch-all for all the ‘small stuff’.
Because of its diverse nature, inscribed instrumentum is often neglected and under-published, in turn making it difficult for researchers to include this material in projects and studies as it often involves painstakingly searching e.g. AE and CIL. This neglect stands in stark contrast with the potential of inscribed small finds for numerous research questions, as demonstrated by the work made possible thanks to the herculean effort of recording and digitizing of stamps on Gaulish terra sigillata (https://rgzm.github.io/samian-lod/). We want to be able to study the distribution of the goods from a specific workshop, for example, or the production process in workshops of different sizes, or the social status of those involved in certain branches of production and commerce, which can be studied through onomastics. We might use this evidence to think about levels and types of literacy in different social contexts. Non-monumental inscriptions can give us a peek beyond the ostentatious and often ambitious sphere of stone inscriptions, which are frequently related to the higher echelons of society and have the distinctive purpose of displaying something to a wide audience or the public. Instrumentum allows us to see the same part of society expressing themselves in a more intimate way and environment, and even more often it tells us about those parts of society that are less likely to feature in stone inscriptions, such as those involved in production and trade, or those living in more rural areas. I’m currently working with Michel Feugère, French small finds expert, to think through some of these issues via the inscribed examples on his Artefacts database.
Inscribed small finds have received more attention over the past decades, amongst other things because of an increased interest in the material aspects of literacy, and efforts have been made to pull them into the spotlight, e.g. through the publication of the Instrumenta inscripta volumes. But with Epigraphy moving on from a focus on stone inscriptions to including more diverse categories, and from producing print corpora to putting digital tools to use, the old category of instrumentum has produced its own set of challenges, and projects striving to make it more accessible online are taking them on, including our own.
A particular challenge for Digital Epigraphy is the categorization of inscriptions in a way that works across different projects and datasets, and bringing together existing datasets, and the FAIR Epigraphy project led by Marietta Horster and Jonathan Prag and the ongoing efforts of epigraphy.info are tackling exactly this problem. But as far as instrumentum is concerned, the sheer number of diverse object- and text-types involved means that the researchers populating the existing databases often lacked the terminology (or the inclination) to take care over its classification. Accordingly, instrumentum can be found as a category of objects in many databases, rendering it impossible to, for example, search for stamped plates or inscribed spoons, and leaving us with a huge job to do.
In a print edition it can be difficult to do justice to both the archaeological and textual nature of inscribed instrumentum – a decision has to be made how to structure the publication, according to object type or text type, for example, and for each inscription, a decision has to be made as to which category it belongs to. Digital editions are not bound to such linear structure and there is theoretically no limit to what can be encoded, for example in EpiDoc. But we need to put in the effort and avoid catch-all categories such as instrumentum. Digital Epigraphy means that we have tools to manage much more copious and detailed information than is the case with the index of a print edition, and that we can combine the existing criteria in innumerable ways when searching databases and exporting datasets from them. We should make use of this opportunity.
Now that the dust has settled after the international congress of Greek and Latin epigraphy (CIEGL) 2022 in Bordeaux here’s a report from a LatinNow perspective. I sent a gushing tweet one evening stating that we ‘enjoyed every minute of it’. I admit that this was not entirely true…
We had been planning to bring our French version of the VOCES POPVLI tour for many months and the couriering arrangements had started in January. In the fortnight before the conference, everything fell apart. The carnet we needed thanks to Brexit would cost £400 + VAT, suddenly the air freight option was removed altogether due to a lack of airport handlers and the last ditch attempts to organize by-road courier went from looking plausible, if costly, to eye-wateringly expensive in a matter of 24 hours thanks to driver availability (or lack thereof) and fuel costs. So couriering 13 packages would have cost in the region of £4000, several times our budget. I apologised profusely to the organizers and instead packed a smaller display of our research outputs and with the help of the team managed to get this to Bordeaux in one piece.
Handily Janie’s presentation of the tour in the outreach panel organized by Silvia Orlandi and Alison Cooley allowed those most interested in outreach attending the conference to get a taster. It was actually Janie’s last working day on LatinNow half-way through the conference and we are so grateful for her genius ideas, support and leadership, dating right back to the planning phase for the ERC grant submission. We’ll miss her, me especially.
At Bordeaux it quickly became clear that this smaller display of our outputs was in fact more appropriate: we had a stream of visitors who were interested in our ebooks, schools’ worksheets in six languages, replica writing equipment, Roman Inscriptions of Britain Online (given several shout outs in the plenaries) and, most importantly the beta version of our webGIS. The webGIS represents a Herculean team effort coordinating around 30 datasets from numerous digital humanities projects together with our own datasets on epigraphy (originally from EAGLE but augmented and enhanced) and writing equipment. The organizers had given us a projector and we demo-ed it to interested parties who wanted to see ‘all the Greek verse inscriptions in Britain’, or ‘defixiones across the west’. We had discussions about why certain objects with certain texts types were in certain locations – ‘perhaps there is a military settlement there?’ ‘Wait, let me just turn on the military layer – ooo, look, a fortlet’ etc…. We’ve been so nervous about launching the webGIS and it had only been delivered on the weekend at the start of the conference so it was a huge relief that it worked so reliably.
Most colleagues just said how much they liked it and that they would show it to their students, a select few spent ages playing with it and giving copious bits of invaluable feedback: ‘would it be better to have this layer renamed’, ‘I don’t like this colour’, ‘could we search for bilinguals?’ and suggesting further data that could be added. All of this has gone into a 3 page document for our brilliant developer Bart Noordervliet. As a result we have password protected the site until we can release the final Open Access version.
Just with this GIS dissemination the conference would have been exhausting, but we also had to try to attend as many talks as possible, catch up with all our colleagues, several of whom have been writing chapters for us, work to an unexpected deadline on the last day of the conference for final paperwork for Oxford University Press related to our trilogy, enjoy an excursion to beautiful Périgueux and stay up until at least 2 am everyday enjoying the company of friends. It was all wonderfully and tiringly multilingual. The congress proudly has 5 official languages, but there were many more languages represented by the delegates. At the end of the evening Anna Willi, who speaks at least six languages was mixing her Swiss German, French, English and Spanish and creating hybrid forms. At one point Pieter Houten remarked that she was now inadvertently speaking Limburgish (his home dialect). This embracing of multilingualism also carried over to the fascinating papers in the non-Latin and Greek epigraphies session, in which many of our friends were speaking.
But there were also some disappointing aspects too. There were incongruous and unpleasant outbursts of linguistic nationalism which left junior scholars with tears in their eyes. And I witnessed several examples of speakers and respondents using their platform to attack publicly other scholars and outputs. The worst of this involved the ganging up on a project led by a post-doc by professors in the field. By the end of the conference it felt as if a ‘Great Epigraphic Rift’, essentially about digital epigraphy, had formed. It was embarrassing and un-scholarly. A close friend and brilliant digital epigraphist has subsequently quietly remarked that perhaps after all he won’t consider getting into this academic side of things by doing a PhD. It would be great if the gate-keepers and belittlers (none of whom were in the hosting and organizing team I hasten to add) might pause for thought: in a few decades there might not be a field of epigraphy if people don’t feel comfortable entering it. The discipline is big enough for traditional methods and digital ones, and, perhaps most appealingly, a mix. Engagement, constructive criticism and respectfulness will get us much further as we continue to explore the wonderful world of inscriptions.
Regina is one of the best known and loved characters from Roman Britain. She is a character in Minimus, had a replica of her tombstone in a South Shields’ carpark, appears in copies in the British Museum and the Great North Museum and features on the homepage of the Roman Inscriptions of Britain Online. She stars in the KS 2 materials we have been making with Classics for All in a new project to bring the Roman Inscriptions of Britain into Schools. She is indeed a ‘long-lived Queenie’.
And yet we only know her from her second-century CE tombstone found at South Shields, near Newcastle, with its carved image and four lines of text (https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/1065). We don’t even get to see her face as at some point someone deliberately erased it. Could it have been an angry ex-lover in the Roman period or vandalism in the post-Roman period? We’ll probably never know. Maybe this is one reason why we find her so appealing: we want to give her a face and a voice.
What do we know about Regina and her life? Regina sits in the centre of the large tombstone facing us in a wicker chair framed with a gabled structure and columns. She wears a long-sleeved robe over a tunic and jewellery, and around her head is depicted a large oval-shaped object, which has been called a ‘nimbus’. These are put around heads in images to indicate holiness and/or eminence, but we don’t really know what it signifies here. There’s a basket of wool on her left, she is opening a box with her right hand, and she holds a spindle and distaff in her other. This last feature is often found on the depictions of women from Roman Syria.
So how might Syria fit into Regina’s story? We have to turn to the text to find out more. DM opens the three lines of Latin. DM stands for dis manibus and is extremely common in funerary texts, it means ‘to the spirits of the dead’. Then we find out that Regina is from the tribe of the Catuvellauni and is a freedwoman (liberta) and wife (coniunx) of Barates. She died when she was only 30 years old (an(norum) XXX). Why was a Catuvellaunian female enslaved and why was she freed? Sadly we know nothing of the background to her changing statuses.
The monument was set up near the fort at South Shields, but neither of the two people mentioned are from north-eastern Britannia. Regina is from the tribe whose centre was at Verulamium, now St Albans, and Barates, her husband, describes himself as Palmyrenus ‘of Palmyra’. He has come all the way from Palmyra in Central Syria. He added something unique within the inscriptions from Roman Britain: a line of Palmyrene. Palmyrene is the dialect of Aramaic spoken in central Syria. Aramaic was a Semitic language widely spoken in the eastern part of the Roman Empire and was the mother tongue of Christ. It is written from right to left and says ‘Regina, the freedwoman of Barates, alas’. He perhaps felt that he had to express his grief in his first language. How did Barates find someone who could write Palmyrene so neatly onto stone? Did he add it himself or did an associate of his?
We know that the Roman army was diverse and drawn from all over the Roman world. Indeed the Palmyrenes were one rare group that sometimes included their homeland’s language (in this case Palmyrene) in their inscriptions in the Western Empire (usually other groups would use Latin (and sometimes Greek), no matter what their traditional local language). At Carvoran, further along Hadrian’s Wall in the second century CE there was an auxiliary cohort of Hamian archers, from Roman Syria, these would also presumably have spoken dialects of Aramaic as well as Greek and some Latin. At Corbridge there is even another Latin inscription with a Barates, also referred to as a Palmyrene (https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/1171). This man died when he was 68 and is described as a vexillarius, which may mean he had been a flag-bearer in the auxiliaries or perhaps for a trading association. Barates is a common name in Syria so there is no certainty that this Barates is Regina’s husband, but the possibility is enticing!
To return to our text we can gather some more clues. The Latin isn’t quite as we expect it – and it looks as if interference from Greek may have caused the mistakes. So perhaps the first language of the writer was Palmyrene, then Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman East, then Latin. The Latin also exhibits something interesting in the term Catuallauna. This is not how we find the tribal name in Latin where it would be Catuvellauna. Interestingly the change in in the vowel from -a- to -e- in this linguistic context could be a Celtic sound change. So perhaps we have here a clue to the local pronunciation of Regina’s tribal name. Maybe she spoke British Celtic, perhaps alongside British Latin, and her pronunciation had passed on to Barates too.
The language of the monument, both the visual and the textual, can be deconstructed it into its elements: Roman Syrian, Palmyrene, British Celtic, Greek, Latin. But could people reading this in Roman South Shields pick these clues up? If only say 5% of the inhabitants of Roman Britain could read Latin, and the Palmyrene would have been read by many fewer, perhaps much of the message was lost. And what would Regina have felt about her monument and people scrutinizing it centuries after her death? Did she love Barates as much as he, apparently at least, loved her? Or was he her way out of slavery? Was the whole monument much more about Barates, and for his own flaunting of status? In the Palmyrene she is only referred to as a freedwoman and not Barates’ wife, why? And would she have appreciated being styled as a Roman Syrian woman who worked diligently with wool, as all good Roman women should?
Regina, or Queenie, a name that works in both Latin and Celtic, is a wonderful example of the diverse human history of Britannia. There is much more we wish we could know about her, but this eloquent monument is now all that remains of her short life.
LatinNow relies on brilliant researchers around Europe for its collaborative work. In this blog, Josy Luginbühl (University of Bern, Switzerland) tells us about her fascinating PhD research on writing equipment in female graves. Her data forms part of our set on Roman-period literacy which will be made available in a webGIS later this year.
Whether you are reading this blog on the train, at your desk or in your dentist’s waiting area, take a look at the objects around you: which of your belongings do you think represent you best as a person? Your favourite shirt? A certain book? Perhaps a reusable coffee cup, or your iPhone? And would you choose to take them to your grave? What may seem like a strange question to us today was quite normal in Antiquity. Grave goods were carefully selected and accompanied the deceased on their last journey. Depending on the social status, they could include tableware and cutlery, elements of clothing, tools and weapons.
As was pointed out by Janie in her recent blog about stationery, some people were buried with their writing equipment. Let’s for example have a look at the grave of a man from Roman Noviomagus, today Nijmegen in the Netherlands. He was buried around 90/95 CE with his spears and his shield and with a variety of writing implements: two styli, two wax spatulas, an inkwell and a ruler. In addition, there were numerous vessels made of valuable materials. He was probably a local aristocrat with a higher function in the local military camp. The connection between literacy and the military is well known and has been emphasised frequently: being able to read and write would have been an advantage for a military career and probably effectively a requirement for higher officers.
Perhaps more surprising is a grave from the second half of the second century CE from Aquileia (Italy). It contained a perfume bottle, a jewellery box, a fig, three chestnuts, four dates and four leaves, all made of amber, two hairpins and a distaff made of bone, as well as two bronze styli. The inscription on the corresponding sarcophagus tells us that this is the burial of Antestia Marciana, who died at the age of 12 and was buried by her loving parents. Small figurines such as the fruits were often given to children as lucky charms and dedicated to the gods when they reached adulthood. For girls this happened mostly on the eve of their wedding, as this event marked their passage from girl to woman. That the figurines were still in Marciana’s possession indicates that she was not married yet. While they are frequent grave goods for girls, the two bronze styli are remarkable because the written sources do not tell us much about the education or literacy of young girls.
While in modern Europe it would be unusual to be buried with a pen or a smartphone, writing equipment had a specific value in Roman antiquity. As an element of Roman culture, it was put in the graves of deceased individuals in the entire Latin-speaking West, and, as seen above, not only for men but also women and children. This fact was the basis of my doctoral thesis. I collected graves with writing equipment in Western Europe, that is the Latin-speaking part of the Roman empire (well, part of it, as Northern Africa was not included in my study). By analysing associated grave goods, the skeletal remains and the geographical and chronological pattern, I aimed to better understand who was in contact with literacy or aspired to an ideal of education. Our ideas of Roman literacy and education are mostly formed by the written sources and a focus on the city of Rome, and often the spotlight is on the male world. An analysis of burials with evidence related to literacy widens the focus and provides insights into life in the provinces and a social environment that is not imperatively the senatorial aristocracy.
Would you believe that there are more female burials with writing equipment than there are male?! This is not what we would expect from reading the written sources. They rather link literacy to the army, the (provincial) administration, trade or leisure of the upper classes – and to the male part of society. While women did not obviously play an active role in the military or administrative service, they were nonetheless part of this social environment, for example through their husband’s occupation or the location of their family home. The distribution pattern for female and male graves shows an emphasis on these spheres. Many graves with writing equipment are from military sites that are part of the limes (the frontier zone in the Germanies)or at least nearby. Others are from administration centres or situated next to important roads.
Only rarely have writing media such as (fragments of) papyrus scrolls or wax writing tablets survived in graves. Much more common are the actual writing implements, such as a stylus, inkwell or wax spatula. It is not always possible to say beyond doubt whether the buried person was actually able to write themselves, and if so, at what level. Sometimes, short inscriptions on grave goods, like a name scratched into a ceramic cup, suggest some degree of literacy of the deceased or a person close to them. Labelling one’s possession is not only useful in a modern flat share…
But even without clear proof for actual literacy, the selection of grave goods shows that this ability, or in a broader sense education, was an important and desirable ideal. This ideal is not only visible in the grave goods (and therefore no longer on display after the burial ceremony) but, as Anna has shown in her Halloween-blog, was sometimes part of the commemoration of the deceased for eternity on sarcophagi and tombstones, too!
Brusin, G. (1937). ‘Regione X (Venetia et Histria). III. Aquileia. Ritrovamenti occasionali.’ Notizie degli scavi di antichità, 190–196.
Martin-Kilcher, S. (2000). ‘Mors immatura in the Roman world. A Mirror of Society and Tradition’, in: Pearce, J., Millett, M. and Struck, M. (eds), Burial, Society and Context in the Roman World. Oxford, 63–77.
In March 2020, Simona, Pieter and I met in London for one of our team meetings, with Alex joining us on video call because she had a baby and there was talk of a new virus. The three of us went for dinner and drinks at the end of the day, and we vividly remember the moment we said goodbye because we laughed about our silly ‘COVID handshakes’. Little did we know… Since then I have bumped into Simona in the courtyard of the Senate House, each clutching to our laptops, during a fire alarm that forced us to go for a coffee and a catch-up. Alex and I also met Scott to shoot our conversation about Roman writing equipment, and I have seen Pieter on screen for coffees, team meetings and study sessions. But in March 2020 we never thought it would be so long before we were, as an extended team, all in the same place.
Now we are adapting to a less restricted lifestyle and this month marked a very special occasion indeed, as we all met up together in Oxford for the first time in years, including extended team members that flew in from Spain, the Netherlands and the US.
Having updated each other about the numerous LatinNow babies, and grand-babies, we all immediately realised how helpful it is to be working together in the same room, to have time to mull over things and dip in and out of conversations over the course of hours and days. The main reason for the meeting was the joint volume we are currently working on, with each of us writing chapters on Latinization, local languages and literacies in our respective geographical areas of research. It has been really useful to discuss our draft chapters to identify common themes, bounce problems off each other and make sure we cover important aspects without overlapping too much – linguistic developments did not stick to Roman province boundaries and historic periods, after all! This was particularly important for Pieter, Noemi, Maria José and Javier, who are all writing about the Iberian Peninsula, an area with multiple pre-Roman local epigraphies.
Getting together also had the advantage that we could all sit around a big screen and have a play with our data. We are also currently working on a WebGIS that will be made publicly accessible later this year. It will allow users to visualise our epigraphic dataset against the backdrop of a map and to add other features such as roads, production centres, settlements and province boundaries, to contextualise it with factors that played a role in the spread of Latin. It will also be possible to filter our epigraphic dataset and for example display inscriptions on stone, non-Latin inscriptions or only funerary inscriptions together with these different factors. Scott, Simona and Pieter in particular have worked hard on our data and we have refined it to the point where it might even allow us to rethink our knowledge about Latin stone inscriptions more generally, but that is a topic for another blog… All of us are making use of the epigraphic dataset for our chapters, so it was really helpful to display on a large screen what we have been turning around in our heads, to play with different sets and to identify data we can improve or would like to add: why are there several lapidary inscriptions in Brittany? Isn’t that a really anepigraphic zone? Zoom in, add the layer for Roman roads, boom: they’re all milestones! Can we add the locations of mints/mining? As it turns out, coin legends are amongst the earliest evidence for Latin literacy in many of our areas. Which of the existing datasets has the most accurate information on settlements? And what are those dots in the ocean? Careful not to dismiss them as dump sites for inscriptions without coordinates (we’ve been very careful to consider that throughout the data cleaning process), Porcupine Bank is real! Discussion often started at the breakfast table and continued all day and into the evening as we wanted to make the most of our time together. It was hard to get a break in! (Shout out to the staff at a certain Pizza restaurant that let three of us hold down a table for eight for almost an hour whilst half the group couldn’t tear themselves away from the mapping! We did order olives, though…)
After three days of intense teamwork, the week ended with the Spring colloquium of the British Epigraphy Society, which was held in memory of Jim Adams, one of our project Special Advisors, at the CSAD. The speakers (including our own Alex and MJ) took us on a tour of exciting projects that were inspired by Adams’ ground-breaking work, from Spain and the northwestern Roman provinces to Illinois, Egypt and Pompeii, exploring regional and social linguistic diversity, translation techniques and even the vocabulary of bodily functions. It was wonderful to see how Adams’ work is being developed further and taken in new directions; his legacy truly lives on, and LatinNow is proof of it.
There is a wonderful podcast for those who find it hard to sleep called Nothing Much Happens, where the soft-voiced author talks about pleasingly cosy things until you drop off – making coffee, working in the allotment, closing up at a bookshop. I love the series and have found the episodes all very soothing – all except one, about preparing stationery for the new school year. By the end of it, my heart was pounding in my chest as I was wide awake, too excited to sleep. And why was this? Because I love stationery. Nora Ephron knew what she was doing when she had Joe Fox offer his mystery penpal a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils. Do you, dear reader, have fond memories of WH Smiths in late August? Did you spend half an hour choosing the right hardback notebook from Paperchase to be your teenage journal? Do you now have to pretend it’s your children who make you go into Smiggle?
I make these confessions because I’ve just been watching a draft of Anna Willi and Alex Mullen’s terrific new short film on Roman writing equipment. If you’ve ever wondered what tools the Romans used to write, and what they wrote on, this is for you:
What really struck me during Alex and Anna’s conversation were the kinds of associations a Roman might have had with writing and writing equipment: ancient images of individuals with writing equipment convey messages about status, education, literacy, and even, specifically, the ability to understand Latin since in some provinces, the art of writing and Latin Language were intertwined. These implications of writing equipment were so positive than some people were buried with it, while others had it depicted on their funerary markers:
This got me thinking about the associations of writing material today. Stationery isn’t something many people ask to be buried with (although I’d certainly consider it), and it’s not a strong theme in adult self-representation. Posing with notebooks and pens is not a mainstream choice for selfies.
Instead, stationery seems now to carry two potent associations and to be aimed (in marketing terms) at three distinct demographics: the first is the association with creativity. Perhaps the most visible group of users are school children, with greater apparent emphasis on girls. The marketplace is awash with pens, pencils, rubbers, pencil cases, notebooks and folders aimed at school children who are encouraged to prioritise writing by hand, and old enough to have an opinion about how they want to express their identity. The second group of “creative” stationery users prioritised in modern marketing are artists, using pens and paper as their preferred medium for illustration rather than text.
The second association is with an old-world sophistication. Fountain pens in particular, have taken on a special connotation as “special” writing implements, packaged and priced like lifestyle accessories such as expensive watches or jewellery. Here, the use of the pen seems to take on a more symbolic meaning: it adds formality and gravitas to the process of signing contracts, cards and letters. Likewise, the hidebound notebook has become a statement of vintage charm and expense in the age of the mobile phone and laptop. We all know people who love stationery, especially in the academic community. One of my undergraduate recently pointed to my own pen and whispered “Cool. Old school.” I hadn’t realised that my leaky, plastic, short-cartridge fountain pen could be seen as intentional retro styling.
Why is stationery now a niche interest among adults? Perhaps the presumption that everyone is literate precludes the need to prove it. Perhaps the rise of the keyboard has made stationery look out-dated. Perhaps the age distinction between those who write by hand and those who use a keyboard has, in effect, rendered cheap, practical stationery “kid’s stuff” for many people. In any event, the significance of stationery isn’t what it was… ahem… 30 years ago, and certainly not what it was 2000 years ago. Just because an object looks familiar, doesn’t mean it has the same social meaning. Join Anna and Alex to find out more!
If you’ve not already seen our open access ebook on the subject, do take a look at Anna’s magnificent work in full.
I finished editing our Social Factors in Latinization volume recently and I keep coming back to the beginning:
This book is dedicated, with the greatest respect and affection, to J. N. Adams (1943–2021), a giant in the field of Latin studies, and beyond. Jim’s influence can be witnessed in every chapter of this book and in our broader research. We shall miss deeply his friendship and mentorship and cherish his scholarship.
It makes me feel simultaneously a tremendous sense of loss and sadness, but also thankfulness for having known Jim. The book wouldn’t have existed without him and he was at the workshop to prepare it. In academia often one has several guiding lights and inspirations. It is less common to be able to call them also both your mentor and friend. Jim was all of these to so many of us.
My first ‘encounter’ with Jim was in 2004 in a garden in Gower, Wales. It was the summer holidays and I’d taken his Bilingualism and the Latin Language as my ‘light’ reading. (Ha – the physical book weighs 1.25 kg!) The breath-taking journey through the Roman world, stopping at Regina’s Latin–Greek–Palmyrene epitaph from Britain, the Gaulish–Latin potters’ records of south-western Gaul, code-switching in Cicero’s letters and the Roman army in Egypt, had me hooked and thinking hard. Since then all of these have provided stimulus for my own research and teaching.
I first met Jim in person for a brief meeting at All Souls a couple of years later. I’d sat on the X5 (the less-than-pleasant bus option westwards to Oxford) for hours and was seriously nervous. I was met with a barrage of evidence and ideas for things I could do with it – it felt a bit like being in one of his books. Subsequently I moved to Oxford and we continued our conversations, we shared a book launch and he handed over the reins of his fantastically rich course on Imperial Latin for Greats (which came with literally hundreds of pages of notes which he turned into his Social Variationand the Latin language and his Anthologyof Informal Latin). I was able to take advantage of some of his numerous invitations to conferences across Europe as he wouldn’t travel (he was Australian, he’d made one massive trip and had not enjoyed it). If he could have travelled he would have done: his support for other Classicists was at times overwhelmingly generous. For my PhD viva, he had prepared two reports: one for the authorities to approve the thesis, the other 20-odd pages of advice on how to turn it into a book.
His influence was, and will continue to be, phenomenal. As the dedication indicates he is cited in every chapter of our Social Factors volume. It is hard to find much now on the Latin language which doesn’t cite from his oeuvre and he is one of a select few Classicists widely cited beyond our field. His breadth and depth of knowledge of Latin were spectacular and his ability to open new fields striking. Sociolinguistics of the ancient world arguably only started as a field thanks to his impetus. And for me his work unlocked all kinds of doors for interdisciplinary research.
For the last two decades the ground-breaking ‘big-books’ have been coming thick and fast, and he was not letting up on the productivity: he had sent me a huge draft article on the standardization of Latin only in the summer. His loss was a painful shock. I’m reminded of it every day, but also of his wonderful legacy, as I reach for my well-thumbed several kgs of inspiration.