Scribing and shaving: a close encounter with Roman wax tablets

By Anna Willi

As academics, every now and then we get confronted with just how much we live in our own little world, and how easy it is to forget to look beyond its limits. I had one of these moments earlier this month, when I was tagged in a tweet and found myself staring at a tool that got me excited. The tweet was by Roy Lawson (@RAeliusVictor) who had just made a number of brilliant replicas of Roman writing tablets for us (Fig. 1). But let us go back to the beginning of the story.


Fig. 1: Roy’s replica tablets arrive at the office of LatinNow’s scribe. © Anna Willi

In autumn 2019, LatinNow travelled Europe with the Touring Exhibition ‘Voces Populi’. Our senior scientist Janie Masséglia had designed a number of wonderful outreach activities for the tour and we let school children have a go at inscribing wax tablet replicas with styli. More than a year later, when Janie was working on the production of the first volume of our Manual of Roman Everyday Writing (open access here: bit.ly/MREW2), she stumbled over a passage I had written that described how the eraser ends of styli were used to ‘flatten’ the wax where corrections to the text were to be made. During the Touring Exhibition she had discovered that flattening was almost impossible with the kind of erasers commonly found on metal styli, which are shaped like small spatulas (Fig. 2). Instead, she resorted to removing a thin curl of wax, ‘like a parmesan shaving’, as she put it. This remark led me to reconsider in some detail just how wax tablets were erased, and to a series of delightfully nerdy Skype sessions with graduate student and stylus specialist Alessia Colombo (a short article on what we found out is due to be published in Instrumentum later this year). But while writing up my thoughts, I realised that I needed to get my hand on a replica and try myself.

Fig. 2: Examples of Roman iron (top) and bone styli with typical erasers (not to scale), redrawn by A. Willi after Schaltenbrand Obrecht 2012, 349, 395, Gostenčnik 1996, 111 and Fingerlin 1998, no. 1337.24 (for full references see the LatinNow Manual (link above). © LatinNow

This is where the SSHRC comes in. The SSHRC is Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and last year they awarded a grant to an exciting new project on wax tablets led by Dr Alex Meyer (Western University, Ontario), and on which our own PI, Alex Mullen, is a co-investigator. The Alexes are exploring new ways to decipher Roman wax tablets with imaging technology, and because the originals are fragile and difficult to move from museums, they needed inscribed replica tablets as test objects. I was happy to act as LatinNow’s scribe in return for the opportunity to experiment with erasing techniques. I got myself a stylus and a spatula and sent a wish-list of specifications to Roy Lawson, who was willing to produce the tablets for me to inscribe. In the process I also asked him about their production, sharing my thoughts about styli and the erasing process. And while I was experimenting with the replicas (there is something to be said here about using a toddler’s wooden xylophone stick as a replica bone stylus eraser!), inscribing and reinscribing them with the first verses of the Metamorphoses and happily piling up heaps of wax shavings, Roy tweeted an image and tagged me in it.

Fig. 3: The photo tweeted by Roy (@RaeliusVictor). © Roy Lawson.

Looking at it on the small screen of my phone I first thought the Lego legionaries were carrying a Roman stylus. Point, shaft and spatulate end were all there, and even the size was right, but something seemed off. Since the tweet did not provide an explanation, I asked Roy what the object is and he uses it for. As it turns out, this tool is a scribe or scriber, made of hardened steel and used by engineers and metalworkers for scribing, i.e. making marks on metal; similar tools are also used by jewellers, for example. As Roy explained to me in an email, he uses it on all kinds of materials: ‘I use the point for marking on almost everything, it produces a fine constant line. The flat end is very useful for marking out fine cuts in wood, it helps locate the saw or chisel.’

I was very happy when I learned about this tool. I love how many tools look similar throughout time. But more importantly, ever since I researched Roman styli for our Manual, I had a hunch that writing may not have been the primary function for all Roman styli finds, as is often assumed, particularly in case of heavier, bulkier examples or those found in areas that can be interpreted as workshops. Roman styli were not made of steel like Roy’s scriber. The majority were made of iron, more delicate examples also of copper-alloy, and apart from the earlier bone styli we can assume that wooden versions were also used. But a good iron tip would have been useful to make marks into many surfaces from softer metals to wood and plaster for example.

Writing implements are often seen as very specific instruments that were used in the fairly restricted context of literacy. The case of the scriber shows that we may have to be more open to multiple uses for any given shape of tool, and the further implication is that we need to be cautious when using finds of writing equipment as a proxy for literacy. There is still a lot of work to be done on styli and the practicalities of Roman everyday writing, and a lot is clearly to be gained for this kind of research from experimental archaeology – and from venturing beyond the academic world.

Introducing LatinNow ePubs and Anna’s new book!

By Janie Masséglia

This month sees the launch of LatinNow’s first volume (although it’s Volume 2!) in our new series Manual of Roman Everyday Writing, available as an Open Access interactive flipbook:

Anna Willi (2021), Writing Equipment, Manual of Roman Everyday Writing, Vol. 2,
LatinNow ePubs, Nottingham.

We’re delighted for Anna and the whole team send our congratulations for completing such a stellar publication in the strangest of years. I’ve nobbled this month’s blog to write about the business of publishing an ebook, and what we’ve learned about getting the new volume into ‘print’.

We were first inspired by the gorgeous publications by the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama in Oxford, who produced their Medea book back in 2016 and their Agamemnon book last year. For academic projects and researchers looking to dip their toes into Open Access publishing, an in-house ebook has a number of advantages:

  • You can control everything about the look and layout of the book
  • You can share your work easily online, encouraging a wider readership
  • You can embed links and videos
  • You can update your publication instantly
  • You can track and study the traffic to your site (e.g. using Google Analytics), giving you that all-important data when reporting your research ‘impact’

But there are some areas where it might seem easier to fall back on a traditional Press, particularly peer review and permanency. We’ve been working hard to negotiate our way around these problems, and wanted to share both our new publication and our findings:

Self-publishing isn’t incompatible with Peer Review

It’s now more important than ever that scholars receive acknowledgement for their hard work. We were adamant that we wanted our books to be officially recognised as ‘proper’ Open Access books, and so held in mind the criteria that would allow us to apply for Certification with the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB) once they were published. If you can set up a Board of Editors, an Editor-in-Chief, follow the steps to have the manuscript frankly appraised by external experts, and make your processes open and transparent, you don’t need to rely on a traditional Press for your ebook to be peer-reviewed. You just need to be brave!

Get yourself an ISBN number

If you are attached to a University and part of a research project, the chances are that your Library will be able to provide an ISBN number. If not, these can be purchased easily online.

Choose the right type of ebook for your readers

In most cases, preparing an ebook begins with making a PDF. I used Adobe InDesign to prepare the layout, but any word-processor which prints to PDF (including good ol’ MS Word) would work. If you insert logical bookmarks, cross-references and links into your PDF, you make it more interactive and easier to navigate. But there is a snag when dealing with long texts in PDF: all that scrolling. With a hard-copy book, the reader can check a reference or view an appendix before returning to their original location just by putting their finger between the pages. With PDFs and some ebooks, once you’ve followed a link elsewhere, there’s not always an obvious way to get back. Scroll, scroll, scroll.

In the case of Anna’s ebook, she had built a fantastic appendix of literary sources with original texts and translations, and these could be found by following a hyperlink in the main text. How could we get the reader back from the appendix to the original page they were reading? We could have programmed another link, this time from the appendix back to the main text. But what if several places in the main text referred to the same item in the appendix? The manuscript would become littered with options. In fact, there is a way to return to your previous location in a PDF (Alt + left arrow key in a PC, or Command + left arrow key on a Mac) but this manoeuvre isn’t familiar to all users. How could we make the book as user-friendly as possible, retaining the best bits of a traditional book and an ebook? The answer came in choosing an additional software to turn the PDF into a “flipbook”.

What’s a Flipbook?

Flipbook software processes your PDF and gives a smart on-screen interface that also provides helpful navigation buttons and reading features. Very little of the flipbook software on the market is made with long, finger-in-the-page-while-you-check-the-references-type text in mind, so finding one that offers the right features for an academic book is essential. Our wish-list for usability included:

  • a ‘back’ button to help the reader return to a previous location
  • the option to have the Table of Contents visible alongside the book while reading
  • a search box to function as an index
  • the option to embed videos and media in the text
  • a standard format which could easily be made available and shared online

We compared lots of software packages by using the free trial version before finally settling on one called FLIP PDF Professional, the only one we could find that really lent itself to the way researchers use books. It uses HTML5 so works like (well, it is) a webpage (cave emptor: avoid any software which only uses Flash, as this is being phased out and you’ll have bought a white elephant). This little video shows these functions in action for Anna’s new book:

Future-proof your ebook

The current trend in flipbook software is for monthly subscriptions. Aimed primarily at the journalism and publicity sectors, these payment plans mean that, for an ongoing fee, users always have the most up-to-date features and have the option to store their publications in the provider’s online repositories. But when the payments stop, the ebooks and brochures disappear. Most academic research projects only last a few years, so it’s important not to become tied to a subscription service.  The one we settled on happened to be one of the few services which we could buy outright, up-front, meaning we had complete ownership in perpetuity of our publications.

Finding a permanent webpage to house the ebook was important. LatinNow, like many research projects, uses a subscription-based WordPress blog as our main project site, which is linked to the life of the project. Again, we needed a home for the book which would outlive the blog site. We decided to use GitHub as a cost-free way to store our flipbook permanently online. This did require a bit of IT know-how to get started, but with the help of Jasper Donelan at Nottingham and Jezcentral (you’re never too old to ask your big brother for help with coding), we got there (a tip for other GitHub beginners: do download the GitHub desktop app).

We hope you enjoy the book which you can find online here. Huge congratulations to Anna, and thanks to everyone who helped us find our way from draft to flipbook.

Texts Rock: ‘The Great Merge’

By Alex Mullen

The last few days we’ve been working hard again on our epigraphic database. We have just released a video which describes a little how we will use this in combination with our other datasets to try to answer some big historical questions about life and languages in the Roman west. It’s a talk Pieter (in the Netherlands) and I (in the UK) gave jointly on a Friday night for the Digital Humanities centre at San Diego State University. We had a great host – David Wallace-Hare (the David I occasionally mention in the talk!) – to whom our thanks for the invitation. It was nice to be asked to talk specifically about the DH side of our project.

In our last blog, we explained the nature of our epigraphic dataset and some of our tasks over the past couple of years. We are now very close to pressing the button to initiate ‘The Great Merge’. Up until this point we have been working with 181,000+ different EpiDoc records mostly from EAGLE which are derived from a number of digital epigraphic sources. Over the last couple of years we have identified, by machine and by hand, many thousands of duplicate records (in addition to the numerous duplicates already found by EAGLE). Now we will merge these records to make one set of records (c. 135,000) for each text-bearing object and will assign them LatinNow URIs. All the original data will, of course, also be kept. And everything will be open access.

Merging records might sound straightforward but what goes into the single merged record is complicated and requires even more complicated coding (the latter our wonderful Technical Director’s specialty thankfully!). Everything is fine if the attributes in each record match or one provides metadata that the other doesn’t. The issue is when the values for the same attribute in the duplicate records don’t match. The first pass at the merge coding turned up a scarily high number of non-matching attributes, over 24,000, even after our attempts at harmonizing the vocabularies and cleaning of the dataset. Luckily a good chunk of these are solved by adding rules about hierarchy (‘stone’ and ‘stone: limestone’ are not conflictual) and telling the machine how to cope with the same attributes which been assigned differing levels of confidence. Many of the non-identical attributes are also complementary – so we can tell the code to keep both of them when merging the records. But there, as always, remains a set of ‘problematic cases’. It is unlikely, for example, that the same inscription is simultaneously ‘stone’ and ‘ceramic’ (perhaps a researcher in one of the source epigraphic databases has assumed votive texts with VSLM will be on stone for example), and inscriptions are rarely both a milestone text and an epitaph. We have had to find clever ways to deal with these but many must be checked by hand.

One example may serve as an indicator of some of the knotty issues we face. As ancient historians we are interested in mapping the lapidary epigraphic habit so it is important that we have a reliable set of georeferenced data points of stone inscriptions. A few stone inscriptions have the attribute ‘material: rock’ in the database. Of course stone is also rock, but epigraphers do normally want to make a distinction. Worked rock – what we call stone – made into an object that is then inscribed (e.g. a tombstone or an altar) is different from rock in a cave or mountainside that is carved or scratched into directly. There are interesting links to make between the two formats, but we want to be able to categorize them separately and not subsume the rock inscriptions into the much larger lapidary set. We can of course keep rock within the series of attributes for the material of lapidary texts, for example having rock, stone and limestone in a descending hierarchy.

View of the Lances de Malissard (photo: Patrice78500, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

One of our fun tasks this past week was trying to ensure the rock and stone inscriptions were not lumped together. Pieter took on the Iberian Peninsula, Anna the Germanies and I Gaul and Britain. This led me to rediscover some really interesting rock texts, including the slightly unusual text on a rock face of the crête de Malissard, which reads hoc usque Aveorum, which can be translated roughly as ‘this is the border of the territory of the Avei (?)’ and shows the double I for E which is much more common in handwritten texts using the stylus than in rock or stone-carved texts. Who the Avei (?) might be is unclear. It’s an intriguing inscription to which I’d like to return, and perhaps even try to visit one day when travel is permitted.

Rock-hewn inscription on the crête de Malissard (photo: Yoan Mollard, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Next up for our post-‘Great-Merge’ database is to decide exactly how we can best make our data accessible for the general public and the academic community.

Our epigraphic dataset

By Simona Stoyanova, Scott Vanderbilt and Alex Mullen

We play with a lot of data in the LatinNow project and we thought we’d tell you a little about our biggest dataset: the 180,000 record strong epigraphic database.

Considering the large geographical and temporal scope of LatinNow, we asked the EAGLE-Europeana network to share their epigraphic data from the north-western provinces. They kindly agreed and that was the start of our core dataset. That meant that we had EDH, EDCS, Hispania Epigraphica, Ubi Erat Lupa and PETRAE, amongst others, all in EpiDoc, while data from RIB is being added directly by Scott. Of course, the different focus and approach of each of these corpora mean that the granularity of encoding is different – e.g. some projects annotate evidence for dating or very detailed provenance information while others are more interested in the text and provide minimal metadata. However, the shared use of the EpiDoc standard and EAGLE’s efforts enabled us to leverage all available metadata and to query records on a scale otherwise impossible.

We gradually started adding our own corpora into the mix – e.g. Gaulish (Gallo-Greek and Gallo-Latin), Raetic and Noric, as well as the spindle whorl collection discussed here. Using the same attributes and vocabularies allows us to query and compare features of these inscriptions alongside those coming from EAGLE and RIB. Simona also worked with Francesca and Alex on picking a set of socio-linguistic attributes, starting from the massive list in the Computerized Historical Linguistic Database of the Latin Inscriptions of the Imperial Age and building on Francesca’s and Alex’s linguistic research on specific regions. After much debate we decided on half-a-dozen most representative and relevant for our provinces (particularly those with relevance for language contact). Mapping these with our more precise coordinates gives us a clearer picture of socio-linguistic processes across the western part of the empire.

Representation of data flows to and from the LatinNow project (Simona Stoyanova)

Data can be a messy business and has to be curated and analysed with care and understanding of the principles followed in its collection. Differences in encoding, as mentioned above, come from project-specific needs, while differences in, say, bibliographic reference style, may come from national practices, even personal preferences. Another issue can be the files’ date of publication. We noticed some duplication of records between our dataset and the current EDH, which turned out to be a case of EDH having updated those records post-2015 – the date of the EAGLE data transferred to us. Further complications arose from the different approach towards fragmentary texts/objects. While Trismegistos catalogues all parts of a fragment under one identifier, other data providers treat each fragment as a separate item with its own identifier. Each of these issues, and numerous others, had to be addressed with a combination of epigraphic, publishing, encoding and data science experience. Reconciling varying approaches to the recording of our material is no easy task and is not a trivial task.

We, especially Scott and Pieter, worked hard on the improvement of geospatial coordinates, since mapping is a key tool in our research. This involved pouring over publications in an attempt to figure out how to pin down ‘the south-west corner of Don Pedro’s farm’ and trying to work out why different projects had recorded sometimes radically different co-ordinates. It was always important to work out whether ‘dump sites’ had been deployed by projects, i.e. a consistently chosen central location used to place inscriptions whose provenance was not known e.g. beyond a province.

Messing around with mapping, Latin inscriptions and the road network (Pieter Houten)

We also spent a lot of time adding to and harmonizing attributes. A starting point for our metadata consolidation was the EAGLE vocabularies for material, object type and text type. The importance of EAGLE’s attempt at reconciling complex terminology in multiple languages from multiple projects cannot be overstated. It has made projects like ours possible and has encouraged the epigraphic community to work with more concertation on the digital future of our field. Currently, there is an effort from both the epigraphy.info and the Linked Pasts community to review and streamline the vocabularies, and build more robust Linked Open Data mechanisms around them. While we wait for this work to be completed, we spent hours debating issues such as: what is a Tafel vs table vs plaque vs tablet vs plate; do we actually need to leverage them with one or two terms, or can we keep them all and still perform meaningful searches and analyses?

But without a doubt the most time-consuming task was deduplication. Projects at the time of the download from EAGLE did not consistently link up their data – e.g. with a Trismegistos ID or similar. As a result, with downloads from multiple different digital epigraphic projects, some of the same objects had as many as half a dozen records. Finding them is easy if they share identifiers, but the majority were not straightforward to find, requiring bibliographical/text comparisons, for example. And ultimately, for a frustratingly large number, time-consuming checking of original publications. Once we have a fully deduplicated dataset, Scott will set in motion ‘The Great Merge’, which will allow the metadata from multiple projects to show under one new merged record, making one set of very rich records for our provinces.

Our metadata efforts are now bearing fruit beyond our own convenience. We are collaborating, for example, with the Michel Feugère at the CNRS Lyon, where he and his team are working on a corpus of inscribed small finds drawn from his Artefacts website. Our taxonomy has been consulted by them, to ensure consistency and compatibility between our data sets.

All of our research outputs will be open access and we follow the FAIR principles of data management for our digital assets. Our final results will be available in Zenodo, GitHub, and as many other repositories as we can find. We are in conversation with our colleagues to work out how best to feed back to them our additions to the data they provided. And, importantly, we will follow the best practice set out by the epigraphic community on standardization and Linked Open Data.

We thank all those projects who have shared data with us and look forward to our linked data future!

A nerd’s-eye view on Die Barbaren – Bilingualism in Germania

The Romans announcing the arrival of Varus. To the left the standard bearer and to the right the centurion Metellus. © Netflix

By Pieter Houten

As a classicist I seem to have this nerd’s-eye view on all things related to our field. Yes, I will write about the Netflix-series ‘Die Barbaren’. But, no, I will not write about how it is not historically accurate enough. We can put salt on all snails, as we say in Dutch. They didn’t need to make the mistakes of having the Germanic warriors ride horses with stirrups (was it for insurance reasons?) and having a tiger skin, rather than a lion, in the military outfit of the eagle-bearer. Yes some of us notice these things, but we also realise it is a series created for entertainment. For me the interesting choices they have made about language have made the series even more entertaining and to explain why I will give you a peak into my nerd brain.

Looking closely at the Roman horses we see they are fitted with horseshoes. For a long time I thought this was incorrect. However, we have archaeological evidence for horseshoes. In the Thermenmuseum in Heerlen a few are on display. © P.H.A. Houten

The series starts with the Germanic people speaking modern German, no surprise there as it is a German series. But then the eagle-bearer and a small troop of Roman horsemen led by the centurion Metellus enter. And this is when the fun starts. Metellus rides to the Cherusci for an announcement: in Latin. That is when I realised that the modern German is supposed to represent the Germanic language of the Cherusci. We could start a debate about how far off modern German is from the language spoken 2000 years earlier. However, unlike Latin, the Germanic languages of the time have not been preserved beyond names. Unfortunately, the Germanic Batavian commanders at Vindolanda, for example, learned Latin so well that there is no obvious evidence, apart from the odd Germanic name, of Germanic in the reams of Latin they left behind. Admittedly, some bright people could have been hired to reconstruct a variety of Proto-Germanic from known early Germanic languages such as Gothic. However, that would open up new debates: for example, if you start going down that lane you should perhaps also consider the possible dialectal differences between the Germanic of the Cherusci and Bructeri. So we can easily forgive the use of Modern German.

The tombstone of Marcus Caelius who was the First centurion of the 18th Legion. His brother set up this monument to commemorate his death in the ‘bello Variano’.

The choice to have them speak different languages is a nice touch allowing viewers to understand a bit more of the difficulty of interactions in a new province. Metellus announces in Latin that there is a new legatus Augusti for Germania, the one and only Publius Quinctilius Varus. However, Metellus quickly realises that the Cherusci did not understand a word of the announcement. That is also when we get the next surprise: Segestes steps up as interpreter. Apparently, this Cheruscan elite member has learned Latin. Bilingualism in the northwest, in action – exactly the kind of thing we study in LatinNow!

Interestingly, Segestes’ role as the conniving-double-playing interpreter fits the classical idea of multilingual people that we sometimes see in elite literature. In antiquity, multilingual people were not always received with much laus and gloria. In Plautus’ play, Poenulus, the Carthaginian Hanno is portrayed as speaking all languages (Poen 112). When he switches from Punic to Latin, Milphio calls him a double-tongued snake (Poen 1029-34). Moreover, Livy recounts that the Carthaginians, the famous rivals of Rome, could not be trusted for their multilingual capabilities, they could write in Latin to mislead the Romans (Liv. 27.28.4). Back in Die Barbaren we also see that Roman officer Arminius uses his bilingualism to plot and scheme with the Germanic peoples. That Arminius was bilingual is also noted by Tacitus who records that Arminius spoke his Germanic language with Latin interference (Tac. Ann II.10). I will not go into this any further as that might entail spoilers for the next season…

Similarly in this season, we learn about Arminius’ bilingual background when he contacts the prefect Talio of the Germanic auxilia. We have to note here that the auxilia in the Roman army were drafted from the provinces. As Arminius leaves, Talio makes a joke in German. As it was about the Roman Empire and Arminius overheard it, he responds in German. Again the bilingual speaker is shown as something to fear, and unfortunate Talio is whipped for his insubordination. The ending of the first episode reinforces Arminius’ bilingualism with the code-switching cliff-hanger: “Salve Vater” “Greetings, Father” (Latin, German).

The inscription recording the career of Atilius including his function of interpreter for the Legio XV © EDCS AE 1978, 0635

When Arminius and Thusnelda visit the legionary camp Arminius’ forked tongue is clear. He is not literally translating what is being said. But that might have been a wise choice. Thusnelda is not inclined to be friendly to the Romans and insults them in Germanic. However, this is a dangerous game, as there is an interpreter on the Roman side: Pelagios. We know from inscriptions the Roman army had interpreters. In the Germanic area of the Marcomanni there is an inscription from Boldog (Senec, Slovakia) mentioning the centurion Atilius who also served as inter(p)rex.

Looking for these linguistic references in the series is quite fun. They are a nice touch for a series in the sword-and-sandal genre which focuses on the warlike interactions. The series could even have stretched the story to show more aspects of the Roman and Germanic interactions – for example the development of cities and trade in the new province and how interpreters like Segestes might have fitted into this too. The interactions in the new province were not only of war-like nature, it was all a bit more complex. Die Barbaren is a great watch though and hunting down these linguistic features is a fun activity diverting my mind, at least, from the problems of our own time.

What. a. year.

By Alex Mullen

We’ve done our best in the LatinNow family to support one another and our colleagues through this strange period. We’ve had regular online research meetings, joined lots of virtual conferences, given talks, submitted papers and had G&T nights to keep our ‘spirits’ up. We have always supported flexible working and have team members in different countries so we were perhaps not hit as hard as some other projects given our already extensive online resources. But, frankly, we have struggled with anxieties, lack of changes of scenery and personal contact with colleagues, kitchen table work and the sometimes less than helpful input of small humans. There have been several disappointments: plans to head to Vindolanda for research and public outreach had to be shelved, along with an exciting summer outreach events programme; numerous in-person conferences and meetings have been postponed, including a London hook-up with the wonderful EAGLE people and Pieter’s lectures in China; and our work (especially on RTI) with museums in Switzerland and the Netherlands has hit the annoyingly constantly-moving buffers.

A LatinNow research meeting in the new COVID format

But we know that we have so much to be thankful for and there have been some restorative highlights. In the Autumn we welcomed our 7th ‘LatinNow baby’, a boy (for those keeping score it’s 4:3 to the girls), and I’ve been at home more so have caught the first words and steps of LatinNow baby no. 6. We’ve saved money and trees not traveling and have managed to extend the contracts of our two current post-docs, Pieter and Anna, so that we can, together, make up for lost time. We’ve finished several articles that had been long in progress due to the usually very busy LatinNow schedules and Anna, Alan Bowman and I have completed the manuscript for two volumes of the ‘Roman Everyday Writing Manual’ which should be out in 2021. Work is also underway on editing the social factors in Latinization volume – we’ll be releasing cutting-edge chapters in Open Access format as soon as we possibly can. We’ve been particularly delighted to work with early career researchers and others who are preparing projects using our data.

The participants of the LatinNow ‘Social factors in Latinization’ conference in pre-COVID times

We have blogs lined up for your delectation in the New Year on our fancy database and LatinNow insights into the TV series Die Barbaren.

Season’s greetings and our best anti-Granola (as LatinNow baby no. 1 calls it) wishes to you all.

One year on: the VOCES POPVLI tour… now with video!

By Janie Masséglia

It seems almost unbelievable that a year ago this month, the LatinNow team was touring Europe on its 6-country, 6-language VOCES POPVLI tour. Our travelling exhibition, handling sessions, lectures and school activities were all designed to introduce some of the big themes in our project – how Latin spread in Western Europe – and there’s nothing a group of researchers love better than talking about their work. But what made the whole thing really special was the people we met in the museums, schools and universities along the way.

On this, the first anniversary of VOCES POPVLI, we want to thank again everyone who welcomed us in Spain, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands and invite you to join us on a trip down Memory Lane and around Europe, with our four-week tour condensed into under 8 minutes:

The original All-Stops poster for LatinNow’s 2019 VOCES POPVLI tour to Europe

Happy Birthday, Claudia Severa, And Many Happy Returns!

By Scott Vanderbilt

The author on a break during excavations, May 2019. (Photo: Pete Savin)

I’ve been asked to mark the anniversary of one of the more famous dates in Romano-British history, namely that of the birthday of Claudia Severa, born on the 11th of September sometime in the late first century CE. Many have commented on the significance of the party invitation letter to her dear friend Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the fort commander at Vindolanda (Tab.Vindol. 291), and I certainly have nothing original to add that hasn’t been said before. And, yet, having spent more than my fair share of time with the writing tablets from Vindolanda and the inscribed texts of Britannia in general, I never cease to be amazed by the countless examples of the reminders of how the authors of these texts, notwithstanding the nearly two millennia that separate us, are in many important respects not very different from us at all.

One thing that Severa and I share is a close personal bond to Vindolanda and its inhabitants. Though she herself resided elsewhere (Briga?), it’s fairly certain she was at least an occasional visitor. And if the roads are as bad as Octavius would have us believe (dum uiae male sunt, Tab.Vindol. 343.21), perhaps her journey in inclement weather was no less time-consuming than my own 10-hour transatlantic flight from Los Angeles to Heathrow and a six-hour drive up the A1. (Severa no doubt counted herself lucky that she wasn’t born in February, or the unforgiving Northumberland winter might never have allowed her any guests at her birthday parties.)

Tab. Vindol. 291, birthday invitation from Claudia Severa (Copyright: Vindolanda Trust)

I first chanced upon Vindolanda in the summer of 2010, when I conscripted my three children–the youngest of whom was about to ship out to university for the first time and leave me an empty-nester–into a valedictory holiday walking the entire length of the Hadrian’s Wall Path, one of the glories of the English national trail system. On the third day, I managed to cajole the kids into deviating from the path for a short jolly down to Vindolanda (“not another Roman fort”, the middle one sighed with contempt, coupled with the obligatory dramatic eye-roll that she had mastered at an annoyingly young age). My guidebook had tantalized me with the prospect of being able to observe in-progress archaeological excavations.

An hour later, we were standing at the edge of the barrier and a very friendly excavator stepped away from the trench, brought over a finds tray for us to examine, and cheerfully answered our inane questions. As I recall, there really wasn’t much in it other than some grotty animal bones, heavily corroded nails, and a few desultory pieces of worn terra sigillata. But it might just as well have been the treasure of Tutankhamen, as far as I was concerned. And when I found out he was a volunteer, and that anyone could participate merely by signing up the previous fall, I felt as though I had been struck on the road to Damascus. Of course, I may be over-romanticizing it a bit. But there is no doubt that what transpired that day set in motion a whole series of events, not least of which was the decision to create RIB Online, nine successive annual trips to Vindolanda as an excavator, and serendipitously, the invitation to join the LatinNow team.

An inscribed quern stone fragment excavated by the author.

Excavating at Vindolanda is a fantastic experience and a particular thrill for someone like me who has a special interest in the fruits of these excavations. Most years, it probably doesn’t differ tremendously from a lot of Roman military sites in Britain, apart from the extraordinary density of finds. But in the years when the Scheduled Monument Consent calls for it, certain areas are opened up which allow for exploration of the earlier fort phases and their accompanying extramural settlements that fall below the present water table. At this depth are the oxygen-deprived anaerobic layers that completely arrest any degradation of organic remains and allow for the preservation of artefacts that would have disappeared under any other conditions long ago, including the precious stylus and ink writing tablets.

2019 was one such year, and I had the good fortune to be assigned to one of these trenches during my fortnight session. Employing a time-tested protocol worked out over decades by Vindolanda’s archaeologists, these organic layers are gently spaded in more-or-less 20 cm cubes by a single digger, much as a peat cutter would, and lifted out of the trench and distributed among several diggers kneeling over barrows, who then gingerly sift through the cubes carefully looking for the tablets and anything else that happens to pop out of the black, pungently aromatic organic material. Only bare hands are allowed, as gloves would deny the sifter the tactile sensation required to separate the wafer-thin, highly fragile tablets from the rest of the laminate in which they are found.

While I enjoyed my shifts in the trench doing the spade work, it was incredibly nerve-wracking. The prospect of slicing through a tablet that I knew years later I would see again in a high-resolution infrared photograph in a future volume of Tabulae Vindolandenses as a collection of conjoined fragments, knowing that I was the one who put them asunder, would be almost too much to bear. Thankfully, that fear was not realized, but Dr. Andrew Birley, director of excavations, did spot a small fragment of an ink writing tablet in one of my spaded blocks, perhaps the size of a large postage stamp. It clearly bore traces of ink, but nothing was immediately legible on it. Like all such finds, it was quickly placed in a plastic Tupperware container filled with water from the trench and whisked away to the laboratory for conservation. I hope to see it again, but I doubt I shall recognize it. However, simply knowing something I’ve personally extracted from the ground will end up as one of the Vindolanda Tablets is satisfaction enough.

The author (third from left) with his digging mates and a fine piece of architectural masonry (or possible bench support)?

Sadly, my trip this year for what would have been my tenth excavation season was scuppered by the present pandemic. Of course, as great a pity that is, it certainly pales into insignificance when one considers all the suffering that the world has undergone this year. But I am exceedingly grateful for all that my past journeys have brought me, not the least of which is the many friendships I have been fortunate enough to have developed, both with the tight-knit group of excavators with whom I dig every year, and the members of the LatinNow team.

Which is something else I share with Claudia Severa–the yearning for the company of good friends whom I don’t see nearly as often as I would like, kept apart by impassable roads (or an ocean). Until then, I hold Vindolanda and my friends close to my heart, and anxiously await a return as soon as possible.

Pots of Enthusiasm

We had such a great response to Morgane’s April blog about her work finding uncatalogued graffiti in the archives of the Lugdunum Museum in Lyon.

Dominique Durieux, volunteer and illustrator for the graffiti project, has kindly agreed to be our guest-blogger this month and tell us more (text translated by Janie Masséglia).

The very moment I read the email from the Association GAROM (the Friends of the Gallo-Roman Museums in Lyon) with a call for volunteers to carry out research on graffiti on potsherds, I felt huge excitement. I wanted to know more about this European Project which seemed so unusual, so inaccessible and which promised so many great discoveries.

And so I put in an application, aware of the privilege I was being offered in being able to access the various reserve collection of the Archaeological Museum in Lyon and finding out more about how it all functioned logistically. For me it was a great opportunity and a pleasure to assist an able and committed young researcher, Morgane Andrieu, in an archaeological endeavour which hinged on meticulous study.

Left to right) Dominique, Marie, Camille and Valentine, Musée Lugdunum, Lyon (France)

My own perfectionist tendencies and my experience in working with mosaics and illustration were a huge help in this most minute of undertakings. Creating an inventory of graffiti on gallo-roman ceramics taught me how to locate them, identify them and transcribe them. I also learnt to recognise the various gallo-roman vessels and everyday items which, in turn, allowed me a better understanding of how people lived in the period.

A page-spread and close-up detail of Dominique’s archaeological drawings on tracing paper. Each of the these sherds was found in the museum’s archive.

Thanks to some exceptional finds, I had the chance to meet some fantastic people of all ages and from all kinds of professional backgrounds. The atmosphere was very cheerful and Morgane kept the team together with her good humour and enthusiasm. I’m very proud to have been able to help with archaeological research and, no question, I’d do it again!

Morgane with members of TeamGraffites, Musée Lugdunum, Lyon (France)

LatinNow in Lockdown

By Janie Masséglia

As you’ll have seen from the blogs over the last few months, even with the challenges of childcare and library/museum estrangement, the Great Work of the LatinNow Project continues. This month we thought you might like to meet the team and take a peek into the life of a research project in lockdown.

Meet the Family

LatinNow has a good-sized team, with the day-to-day running of the project in the hands of Principal Investigator, Alex Mullen, and our brilliant group of Research Fellows, Senior Scientists and Collaborators. It was a friendly group to begin with, but our VOCES POPVLI travelling exhibition to Europe last autumn also meant that we’ve cultivated the kind of banter that comes naturally after spending hours together in a van. Here are a few of us posing for the 2020 Philology and Epigraphy Quarterly Allstars calendar:

Clockwise from top left: Camera-shy PI, Alex Mullen’s famous ‘Groovius Maximus’ mug (and a glimpse of a stylus tablet from Vindolanda!); Pieter Houten; Janie Masséglia; Simona Stoyanova; Anna Willi, Morgane Andrieu.

Let them eat cake!

Food is an important part of our team culture and most pre-lockdown project meetings were accompanied by food (and often pizza if the PI had her way). Some of our best thoughts have come over a dinner table. As we’re not currently able to inflict our cooking on each other, some of us have been signing off our emails with virtual baked goods and sending round photos of what we could be enjoying. Except for Anna, who, in an unprecedented move, decided not to send us virtual “slices of the egg-free buckwheat carrot cake we made because it is absolutely disgusting, sorry!” She’s just so thoughtful. Here are just some of the lockdown highlights:

Clockwise from top left: Simona’s lemon posset, Anna’s sweet Easter rolls, Janie’s Dangerous Rainbow Cake (since even the tiniest piece has a highly decorative effect on the digestive system of toddlers), Noemí’s Easter mona, Pieter’s Lênzevlaoj (made to his grandmother’s Limburgian  recipe, and most assuredly in no way related to the Linzertorte), and Morgane’s tarte à la fraise,

A Room with a View

We’re used to being in different countries: Scott is based in the US, Noemí and MariaJo in Spain, and Morgane in France. But the restrictions on movement have had a big effect on how we work. Libraries being closed obviously restricts our access to books, especially epigraphic corpora. For several of us, the loss of nurseries or usual help from family members and carers meant learning to work with babies and toddlers in the office. For Morgane, the lockdown meant that she was unable to get to the boxes of potsherds housed frustratingly nearby in the Lugdunum Museum, which are central to her work on ancient graffiti. For Pieter, it meant an accidental change of country. He popped back to the Netherlands in March for what he thought would be a holiday, only to have his return barred and his accommodation in Oxford cancelled. He and his fiancée have been making the best of it, setting up their workstations on the kitchen table and reconstructing a missed trip to Greece on their balcony. One of the first things we started doing when lockdown began was sending each other pictures of what we could see from where we were. We all did it. Considering that we all felt stuck in one place, I suppose we wanted to let each other know what that looked like.

Clockwise from top left: leaf-shaded tennis courts for Simona in London, Noemí’s magical views across the Spanish Med, a Greek-style frappé break on the balcony for Pieter in the Netherlands, a peek of the village sports pitch for Janie in Oxfordshire, Happy Easter messages on Alex’s driveway to cheer up fellow villagers in Cambridgeshire, spectacular riverside view for Morgane in Lyon, and building works and bins for Anna in London.

Sociable Media

Views from our windows, pictures of our children (even a first grandchild  – hurray, Scott!), scans from hard-to-locate epigraphy corpora… we know what makes each other’s day. The WhatsApp group means we can send all kinds of messages around the group without the formality of email.  And being a multinational group ourselves, interested in cultural difference and language exchange, we love hearing about linguistic and cultural transitions.

Take Anna and Simona (brought up in Switzerland and Bulgaria respectively) who, it turns out, are both unsettled by the sound of Ice Cream vans, while the Brits in the team hear the same music and want to ring our mums and ask if we can have a 99, even though it’s nearly dinner time:

And then there’s Pieter’s name. It has been a running joke in the team that Pieter Houten should really be Pieter *van* Houten, after he was signed up to the University of Nottingham with the accidental addition (we’re not sure how this happened but everything points to the PI…). And it seems that his fellow countrymen agree, meaning that lockdown has brought him both an unexpected change of country and a new name:

Wherever you’re reading, greetings and a virtual chocolate brownie from all of us at the LatinNow Project.