The Girl with the Bronze Stylus

A guest blog by Josy Luginbühl

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.

Reconstruction of the mid-first century CE ‘Doctor’s Grave’ at Stanway, UK, as displayed at Colchester Museum. The grave goods include a board game and surgical tools. © David Gill

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.

Contents of Antestia Marciana’s grave, drawing by the author after Brusin 1937, 191 fig. 1.

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.

Map of female burials with styli as grave goods, map by the author.

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…

Graffito from a burial at Stanway, UK (c. 35–45/50 CE), possibly reflecting very early literacy in restricted contexts in the latest phase of the Iron Age. From Sealey (2007), 309.

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!

Close-up on the upper left part of the front face of the so-called Portonaccio sarcophagus decorated with scenes of battles between Romans, Sarmatians and Germans carved in marble. On the right hand side is a girl writing onto a tablet. Roman work, 180-190 AD from the vicinity of Via Tiburtina – Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Rome).

Further Reading:

Brusin, G. (1937). ‘Regione X (Venetia et Histria). III. Aquileia. Ritrovamenti occasionali.’ Notizie degli scavi di antichità, 190–196.

Fünfschilling, S. (2012). ‘Schreibgeräte und Schreibzubehör aus Augusta Raurica. Mit einem Beitrag von C. Ebnöther.’ JberAugst 33, 163–236. <[Schreibger%C3%A4t_Augusta_Raurica].pdf> (09.06.2022)

Koster, A. (2013). The Cemetery of Noviomagus and the Wealthy Burials of the Municipal Elite. Nijmegen.

Luginbühl, J. (2017). ‘Salve Domina. Hinweise auf lesende und schreibende Frauen im Römischen Reich.’ HASBonline 22, 49–72, <> (09.06.2022)

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.

Sealey, P. R. (2007). ‘The graffiti from Chamber BF6’, in: Crummy, N., Shimmin, D., Crummy, P., Rigby, V. and Benfield, S. F. (eds), Stanway: an Elite Burial Site at Camulodunum. London, 307–314. <> (13.06.2022)

The Reunion: GIS and BES

By Anna Willi

Simona, Anna, Pieter and pizza in March 2020

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.

Group selfie at a really big breakfast table at All Souls

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.

Pieter, Noemí, Javier and MJ data wrangling at the CSAD

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…)

Scott and Alex cramming in more work just before the British Epigraphy Society meeting began

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.

A Bouquet of Freshly-Sharpened Styluses

By Janie Masséglia

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:

Relief from a scribe’s tomb found in Flavia Solva. Universalmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria. Photo: Hermann Muck. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

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.  

Remembering Jim Adams: a personal perspective

By Alex Mullen

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.

Jim in 2010 at a party to celebrate his Festschift edited by Anna Chahoud and Eleanor Dickey. Image: Anna Chahoud, used with kind permission.

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.

All Souls College, Oxford, where Jim was a Senior Research Fellow. Image: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

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 Variation and the Latin language and his Anthology of 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.

Some of Jim’s ‘big books’, including, second from left, my barely intact copy of Bilingualism and the Latin Language

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.

LatinNow flips the script!

To celebrate the launch of our new multi-media ebook Scripts and Texts (Vol. 1 of the Manual of Roman Everyday Writing), we’re delighted to welcome Prof. Alan Bowman with a guest blog this month.

The volume is co-authored by Prof. Bowman and LatinNow’s Principal Investigator, Alex Mullen, and complements Anna Willi’s volume Writing Equipment, to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how the Romans wrote in their daily lives. Both volumes are Open Access, and completely free to use and ideally viewed in their Flip-book format. Static PDFs are also available to download from our Publications page. If you like the manual and use it, please drop us a tweet @LatinNowERC – we’d love to hear from you!

This article first appeared in Newsletter 26 (pages 17-18) of the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, University of Oxford (Autumn 2021). Many thanks to CSAD for allowing us to reproduce it.

Illuminating the Vindolanda Tablets

A guest blog by Alex Meyer

In this blog Alex Meyer (Western University, Ontario) tells us about his project Illuminating the Vindolanda Tablets which started last year and in which the LatinNow team is involved: Alex Mullen is a Co-Investigator and Anna Willi has been writing messages on replica tablets made by Roy Lawson to put in the CT scanner… For RTI work in 2019 on the Vindolanda tablets led by LatinNow at Blythe House, see our video.

Aerial image of Vindolanda. © The Vindolanda Trust, Adam Stanford and Aerial-Cam.

The pandemic hasn’t been great for research that seeks to generate new evidence based on physical artefacts. It has been hard or impossible to travel and many libraries and museums have limited access to or closed their collections. Fortunately, digital technologies are making artefacts more and more accessible to scholars around world. For example, while I haven’t been able to travel outside of North America in the last seventeen months, work on Illuminating the Vindolanda Stylus Tablets has resumed in my absence and is producing new high-resolution 3D images of stylus tablets from Vindolanda. Vindolanda is most famous for its extensive collection of ink tablets, but excavations on the site have also produced over 300 stylus tablets. Although about a quarter of those stylus tablets have visible writing on them, none of them have yet been published, because the writing that remains is illegible using current techniques.

The ink-written tablet display at Vindolanda. © The Vindolanda Trust.

This past month the Illuminating the Vindolanda Writing Tablets project, with the assistance of James Miles from Archaeovision, was able to use a state-of-the-art 3D laser scanner to examine some of the unpublished stylus tablets from Vindolanda Roman Fort now on loan to the Vindolanda Trust from the British Museum. These scans are accurate to approximately 30 microns (.03 mm). We hope that scans of this accuracy along with new image manipulation techniques will allow us to read previously illegible tablets.

James Miles of Archaeovision scanning a fragmentary tablet at the Vindolanda Museum.

Over the last century several large collections of stylus tablets have been published from places like Pompeii, Vindonissa and London, but the vast majority of tablets remain unpublished. Some of these tablets are apparently blank, while others have writing that can’t be made out. This is largely because what writing is preserved on stylus tablets is the result of inadvertent incisions that were made through the wax that once covered the tablets but is now almost always lost. To make matters worse, stylus tablets were generally reused. This means that stylus tablets often have overlapping, fragmentary texts that are difficult to interpret in the best of circumstances.

In order to read the tablets, scholars traditionally depend on their naked eyes, assisted by raking light which serves to highlight the texture of the incisions left behind by over-zealous writers. In the past 25 years, this technique has been augmented by the advent of Reflection Transformation Imaging (RTI), which produces composite digital images of tablets with a virtual, movable light source. This technique has done wonders to help read problematic texts. However, it has its limitations. Color and shading can be misleading and some marks are still too shallow or faint to make out.

Illuminating the Vindolanda Stylus Tablets is a collaboration between me, Alex Mullen of Latin Now, Roger Tomlin of Oxford and Barbara Birley of the Vindolanda Trust, and is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We’re exploring new methods by which we might be able to recover texts preserved on these tablets. High-resolution 3D scanning is just the first step. There are many technologies to apply to this problem. For example, in the coming months we’ll be running a replica tablet through a CT scanner and trying various methods of manipulating the results of the 3D scanning and the CT scan to recover and read texts that have so-far eluded interpretation.

The applications of this research are extensive. Not only may this process represent a significant advance in our knowledge of Vindolanda and the Roman empire’s northern frontier, but these same techniques could be applied to previously illegible stylus tablets from other sites, of which there are hundreds. Similarly, these techniques could be applied to other media, including other types of wooden artefacts, bronze tablets, inscriptions on stone and almost any other inscribed or incised material. Most excitingly, these technologies improve everyday and promise to continue revealing new evidence of the ancient world.

Dead man writing

By Anna Willi

Do we think that the Roman dead might be perceptive to a message from the living today? Because I think some of them may be interested in this…

Fig. 1: Can anyone else hear the opening theme of HBO’s ‘Rome’? Roman mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 109982, Wikimedia Commons).

It has always struck me how much the Romans thought of their dead as being part of their living world, and how they included them in that living world by honouring their memory through rituals. You may have heard that the dead were fed milk and wine on certain days of the year, sometimes through holes or pipes in their graves. You may also know, and have chuckled at, Ovid’s description of night-time bean throwing to appease unfriendly spirits that appeared during the Roman version of Halloween, the festival of the Lemuria in May (Ovid, Fasti, 5.421ff.). You may even have raised an eyebrow or two in appreciation of the trusts that were set up to guarantee the maintenance of burials and yearly gifts to the dead in eternity (see e.g. CIL III 703 from Philippi, Macedonia). The perhaps most touching result of this interactive approach to the afterlife is the way in which the Roman dead seem to talk to us from their grave, through the inscriptions on their tombstones: ‘stop here, traveller, and read about me and my life!’ (see e.g. CIL XIII 7070 from Mainz, Germania superior, where the deceased laments that he was killed by a slave).

It was very important to the Romans that their memory was kept alive, and inscriptions and imagery on funerary monuments was used to express or shape this memory. I think of depictions on funerary monuments as a kind of iconographic blurb about the deceased, one that was also ‘legible’ for those that were unable to read. In most cases, there was little space for images and the scenes and items featured must have been chosen carefully. Interestingly, some of the dead seemingly wanted to tell us: ‘look, I had writing equipment!’

Fig. 2: A ghostly appearance: drawing of a fresco in the tomb of the aedile C. Vestorius Priscus in Pompeii showing him as he enters a room with lots of writing equipment in it (from G. Spano, La tomba dell’edile C. Vestorio Prisco in Pompei, Atti della reale accademia d’Italia. Memorie della classe die scienze morali e storiche, ser. VII vol. III.6, 1943, 237–315).

This week I attended an online conference at the University of Pécs, Hungary, that was all about the depiction of writing equipment on Roman funerary monuments (check out their ‘Scroll in Hand’ project here). Funerary depictions of writing equipment are particularly well (but not exclusively) known from the Danube provinces and the Greek East. Writing tablets, scrolls and writing sets containing pens and inkwells are particularly common, and they are sometimes shown on their own and sometimes in use. This is great news for us researchers working on Roman everyday writing because it gives the objects we know through archaeological finds some context and we can learn a lot from such depictions about how these objects may have been used (e.g., no tables, and no quills either!). But can we also learn something about the significance of writing for the representation of the dead?

Sometimes there is a clear professional connection, for example when people are shown or described as teachers or as accountants (this applies to both men and women), or if they were officials or magistrates who would have dealt with a lot of ‘paper’-work. But in some cases, the inscription does not mention the deceased’s occupation, or no inscription is preserved at all. In such cases it is difficult to know if writing equipment was in fact used by the deceased during their life time, or whether its depiction had a symbolic function. Literacy and writing represented education but also more generally social and professional status. The symbolic function can be even more abstract, with a scroll representing a legal document or act such as the manumission of a slave and thus the free status of the person shown holding it.

Fig. 3: A relief from Maria Saal (Austria) showing a man holding a writing set tucked under his left arm while writing on his knee, his foot resting on scrinium, a bucket for storing and transporting scrolls (© Ortolf Harl /

Where detailed writing sets or individual writing implements are shown, or where people are shown in the act of writing, we can at least assume that it somehow related to the identity of the deceased. It was clearly important to them, whether they were literate or not, whether they used writing for their occupation or not. It was so important that they wanted to be remembered as writing in eternity. It has not been an eternity yet, but I think those writing dead men and women would be pleased to know that we’ve seen their writing equipment – and took a long hard look at it, too!

Reading texts with Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)

By Alex Mullen

The LatinNow team has been busy putting together the Manual of Roman Everyday Writing on and off over the past few months. Volume 2, on writing equipment, written by Anna Willi and turned into an eBook by Janie Masseglia, jumped the queue and came out earlier this summer. We’re hoping Volume 1, Scripts and Texts, co-written by Alan Bowman and me, will generate similar interest. Just one of its figures, a table of cursive scripts from corpora ranging from first-century Pompeii to sixth-century Ravenna, has taken me days to create: I wrote out the cursive letter forms in the cells literally 5,000 times before getting it right. The thought that someone, one day, might possibly find it useful inspired me to keep going!

One of the reasons for choosing the eBook format was the fact that we could use as many images as we liked and could even embed videos. We’ve made three new videos for Volume 1, which you can watch now as a kind of sneak-preview trailer for the book, which is coming out in a couple of weeks. They are designed for people new to RTI.

The first is a feat of multitasking skill. Our senior scientist Janie, from the University of Leicester wrote it, starred in it, shot it and produced it all on her own. All in a day. I’m in awe. In the video she explains how we can use RTI to help us to read worn inscriptions – in this case the epitaph of a Victorian couple on a tombstone from a Leicestershire village.

Video 2 is more of a team effort. Scott Vanderbilt shot the footage in Blythe House in London in summer 2019 when we were capturing the unpublished stylus tablets from Vindolanda with the superdome RTI machine. It features a noisy RTI dome, me (out of breath because I’m pretty pregnant with LatinNow baby #7), Richard Hobbs from the British Museum, and some rather special tablets. The legible marks on the stylus tablets are exceptionally hard to read and work is still underway to try to decipher their texts. It’s a case of ‘watch this space’…

The third video is about deciphering a tricky-to-read text on the base of a pot from East Farleigh in Kent and it accompanies the section on ‘How to read cursive texts’ in the manual. It shows how we can use the RTI technique demonstrated in the other two videos to read a text that hasn’t been read for 1800 or so years.

The LatinNow team has been doing quite a bit of RTI over the course of the project: training others to use it and getting involved in some new adventures imaging understudied collections in museums. We’ll blog about some of these soon.

If you are interested in fuller details about how RTI works, these can be found in chapter 8 ‘Modern technologies for reading everyday texts’ in the Manual (we’ll let you know when it is published online), including how you can do it yourself without the expense of a dome. Do contact us if you know of a Roman collection that needs deciphering!

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:, 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, Gosten?nik 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.