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.
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.
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.
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.