Monday, November 2, 2020

Ancient Literacy

The Greeks probably started using a folding pair of wax tablets, along with the leather scroll in the mid-8th century BCE. Metal spatulas were used to spread wax on the tablets. These had an iron blade which could be heated (and is usually missing) and a bronze handle which often depicts the head of Minerva, the goddess of literacy and learning. 

Writing on the wax surface was performed with a stylus which was usually made of metal but sometimes of wood or animal bone, with one end pointed and the other end flattened so it could be used like an eraser to smooth the wax for reuse. The modern expression of "a clean slate" equates to the Latin expression "tabula rasa". To write on sheets of papyrus, slips of wood, or pottery sherds, the Greeks and Romans used a reed carved into a sharp nib and ink produced from soot, plant juices, or cuttlefish ink. 

Hella Eckardt of the University of Reading observes, "Scrolls and wooden leaf tablets were written in ink using a pen made of reed or bronze. Reed pens needed to be constantly re-sharpened, and associated objects include penknives for this purpose along with ink pots and bronze ink stirrers, and sometimes dividers. Roman ink came in two colours: black ink made from soot or pitch pine in a solution of gum, and red ink (used exclusively for headings) made from various red materials such as cinnabar. Wall paintings from Pompeii depict a whole range of objects associated with writing, including money bags which demonstrate the connection between literacy and numeracy."

Eckardt points out that standalone metal inkwells were introduced in the late 1st century CE and were most popular in urban sites, although some have been found at villas and other, especially high status, rural sites. Samian inkwells were largely restricted to large towns and military sites. However, double inkwells were not used after the 1st century, suggesting that two ink colors (black for text and red for headlines) were not used after that date.

Words on scrolls were written in long columns and normally read from left to right, unrolling new columns with the right hand while rolling up read contents with the left. Roman sculptures show that scrolls were written on the knees, not on a table, with one knee held higher than the other to create tension. 

"The Romans liked to boast that they were literate and men, including soldiers, are often depicted with writing equipment. Roman children from wealthy families learned to read and write at school. Although female literacy appears to be shown in some of the images from Pompeii, their poses depict them as muses rather than as women writers. But some women did write: a Roman relief shows a female bookkeeper working in a butcher’s shop, and writing materials are found in women’s graves almost as frequently as in men’s," Eckardt reveals. 

 In 2014, 80 of 405 Roman wax tablets found in London were deciphered and found to include information about Julius Classicus, leader of the Batavian revolt, who had previously served as a prefect of the Sixth Cohort of Nervians just after Londinium was settled by Rome.  Another document detailed a contract to bring 20 loads of provisions to London from Verulamium (modern St. Albans) dated to Oct. 21, 62 CE—about a year after Boudica’s revolt during which she and her troops overran and burned both cities.  This tablet provided evidence of how quickly the Romans re-established their destroyed communities.

To read more of Hella Eckardt's talk on "The archaeology of Roman literacy" check out:

Image: Bronze and silver 4th century BCE writing case that I photographed at "The Greeks" exhibit displayed at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois in 2016. Although like many people I find myself awestruck by ancient monumental sculpture when I attend such exhibits, I also find some of the smaller items, like this writing case, provide fascinating glimpses of every day life in the ancient world, so I always make a concerted effort not to overlook them. This case has suspension loops on the right, making it easy to carry.  The cylindrical shape of the case resembles that of a papyrus scroll, which could be rolled around it.  When opened, its compartments are revealed.  The ones on the left likely held ink.  The one on the right, with the inkwell, contained residues of a black substance.  A stylus may have been stored in the lid.

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

No comments: