Being able to write was a valuable skill in Roman antiquity, but it is usually estimated that only 15% or so of the population of the entire Empire was literate, with most of those individuals living in towns or serving in the army. Literacy is also thought to have been more common among men than women, and most widespread among urban elites at the heart of the Empire, rather than in Rome’s northern provinces.
Much previous research on the subject has, naturally enough, focused on written sources, be they papyri from the Egyptian desert, wax tablets like those discovered at the London Bloomberg site (CA 317), or the renowned ink-written wooden tablets from Vindolanda. One problem with this approach is that these exceptional finds owe their preservation to conditions that are equally exceptional, in either very dry or very wet deposits. Elsewhere, ancient writing materials rarely survive in the archaeological record, making it difficult to understand how and where literacy took root.
One comparatively unsung type of artefact can be used to redress the balance: the humble inkwell. Although these are unlikely to be the first objects that spring to mind when you think about the rich corpus of Roman artefacts, they do survive in considerable numbers. Roman inkwells were usually made from copper-alloy or clay (inkwells displaying the fashionable red hues of Samian ware are especially common), but glass, lead, and silver versions were also available for those with a generous stationery budget. Despite the potential for inkwells to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge about where people were writing, they were not studied as a group until a recent project hosted by the University of Reading and funded by the British Academy produced the first comprehensive catalogue of metal inkwells. This involved gathering well over 400 examples from across the Empire.
Dawn of history
Inkwells begin to be manufactured in the Augustan period, and in the Empire at large most examples come from 1st- and 2nd-century AD contexts. Despite this early peak in use – or at least loss – inkwells continued to be made and used well into the 4th century AD. Britain, of course, took its first hesitant steps towards embracing literacy in the late Iron Age, when coins using Latin script to reference royal households in the south and east began to circulate. Inkwells, though, first appear in the aftermath of the AD 43 Claudian invasion. One early example is a ceramic inkwell from a rich burial at Stanway, Colchester, which can be dated to AD 50-60. The decision to include such an object in an elite burial presumably provides a sense of the status that literacy could confer. Indeed, it is during this early post-Conquest period that the skill truly becomes important in Britain.
Samian inkwells are the most common types from Roman Britain, with more than 130 examples known from London, and at least a further 90 from elsewhere in the province. Although metal inkwells are also found, the overall numbers are smaller, with 32 examples on record. This relative scarcity is probably due in part to cost, with ceramic inkwells presumably being a cheaper option than their metal counterparts. Naturally, metal artefacts are also easier to recycle. Many metal inkwells are only represented by lids, and it can be very difficult to distinguish between them and lids from other small bronze containers (sometimes called pyxides) and so-called ‘bath flasks’ (balsamaria). All these lids have a small catch on the underside, which was moved by means of a small knob on the top. This allowed the vessel to be sealed to prevent spillage and to stop the contents drying out.
Roman writers used both black and redink. Unlike the latter’s reputation in the modern world as a means of expressing displeasure about the quality of a piece of work, in the Roman Empire red ink was preferred for headings and also magical texts; professional writers therefore liked to be equipped with double inkwells. Ancient sources and modern analyses both agree that black ink was most commonly made from soot suspended in a solution of gum arabic or glue. Gum arabic is the dried-up sap of the acacia tree, which commonly grew in Egypt and Asia Minor. Iron-gall ink, which was made from the oak ‘apples’ caused by gall wasps, is most common in the medieval period, but was first used in the later 1st and 2nd century AD. The ink was applied with a reed pen (calamus) rather than the feather quill employed from the early medieval period onwards.
A curious implement found on many Romano-British sites is sometimes thought of as a possible pen. It consists of a wooden shaft and iron ‘nib’, which could perhaps have been used to write with ink on rough materials such as pottery. We know the Vindolanda tablets were written with pens that had a split nib, though, and at least the larger examples of iron ‘nibs’ found elsewhere seem better suited to act as ‘ox-goads’, a tool used – as its wonderfully descriptive name conveys – to urge on draught animals.
As reed pens only survive in exceptional conditions, it is no surprise that metal styli are far more common finds. These iconic metal objects have a point at one end for writing in wax, and a scraper for erasing text at the other; these occur not just in towns and on military sites, but are quite commonly found on rural sites, too. Very recent work by the Rural Settlement Project (see CA 326) is beginning to show a pattern to this presence on rural sites, as most of them are either villas or roadside settlements, rather than more remote farmsteads. Both site-types imply either a familiarity with the ‘Roman’ way of doing things, or regular contact with such people.
Roman metal inkwells could take many different forms. A distinctive 1st-century type is cast, with a series of mouldings on the body; a good example was found on the No.1 Poultry site in London. While there are many plain examples, well illustrated by an elegant inkwell from Chichester, the most elaborate form of inkwell has inlaid silver, bronze, or even gold decoration, usually creating a running scroll or vine design on the lid. A fine example of such a lid comes from the Drapers Gardens site, once again in London. Some inkwells of this type even have figural decoration on the body, as in a specimen now in the British Museum. Such inkwells were quite possibly made in Italy, and clearly represent prestige objects.
Another highly decorated object-type sometimes thought to be an inkwell are hexagonal vessels with panels decorated in spectacular style using enamel. The coloured design is usually described as millefiori (from the Italian, meaning ‘thousand flowers’), and skilfully contrasts red, white, blue, and green with the copper-alloy body. A complete example was found by metal-detectorists in a rich burial in Elsenham, Essex, while two stray panels are now known from Caernarfon and Chichester.
Although London has produced most of the inkwells from Roman Britain, they also occur at major military and urban sites elsewhere, including Colchester, Verulamium, Caerleon, Caernarfon, Caerwent, and Vindolanda. Intriguingly, the inkwell lid from Vindolanda was discovered inside the south gate roadway of the period II-III forts, about 6m from the bonfire site behind the praetorium where the departing unit tried – and fortunately failed – to incinerate redundant archive documents.
While inkwells as a group mainly occur on classic Roman-style sites such as towns, forts, and certain categories of rural sites, it is possible that different materials were used to convey different messages to different audiences. The more-widespread Samian inkwells were perhaps used for utilitarian day-to-day writing by the army and some members of the urban population, while metal inkwells may have been status symbols used not simply to write but also to display the owner’s wealth and literacy skills.
Writers and rituals
Beyond Britain, inkwells and writing equipment have a social distribution that is similarly biased towards urban and military sites, although it is important to remember that in many parts of the former Roman Empire rural finds are much less well published. Inkwells have been found in large numbers at Pompeii, for instance, where they often occur in the atria of wealthy townhouses. Other examples include one from a house thought to have been occupied by a metal-worker, and another from the so-called ‘gladiators’ barracks’. At sites where occupation ended less rapidly and dramatically than at Pompeii, inkwells mostly come from deposits such as pits, but writing sets did occasionally find their way into hoards. There are also signs that writing implements sometimes played a part in rituals carried out before deposition.
A votive pit on the villa site of Marktoberdorf, Bavaria, has produced Samian, ceramic, and glass vessels, alongside writing equipment and pig and sheep or goat remains, as well as a single dog rib. Three of the ceramic beakers bear incised graffiti: one is a dedication to Hercules Victor, and one possibly to a local spirit; all three, judging from their names and handwriting styles, are the work of literate natives. The writing set consists of an inkwell, an iron spatula used to apply wax to wooden tablets, and a small knife.
A broken sherd of pottery from the votive pit can be paired with another from a rubbish deposit next to the main villa house. This suggests that part of the ritual took place there, and that the relatively shallow pit was specifically dug to receive this material. Maybe these are the remains of a ritual feast? The presence of the writing equipment may indicate that the rites were guided by texts. We know that in Roman religion the pledging of a vow (nuncupatio) was recorded in writing, much like a contract, while its fulfilment (solutio) may be marked by a votive offering or the erection of an altar.
As we have seen, writing implements could also be deliberately deposited in graves. Given the widespread assumption that men were more likely to have been literate than women, it is striking that women are quite commonly buried with inkwells and other writing equipment. The connection between men and writing is sometimes so strong, though, that careful osteological analysis is required to expose the truth.
A fine example of this comes from Vindonissa, Switzerland, where a mid-1st-century AD cremation burial was accompanied by two scalpels and tweezers. Doctor’s graves are a well-known phenomenon, and once again usually assumed to be the preserve of men. Detailed analysis of the cremation, though, revealed the remains of a woman aged 18-25 years, who was buried with a three-year-old child. An inkwell was also placed in the grave, indicating perhaps that the deceased was both literate and medically trained. On the other hand, the lid of the inkwell was missing, so it is just about possible that it was reused as a container for medicines or creams. Either way, this burial emphasises the importance of making identifications based on osteological data, rather than relying on preconceptions about whether the grave goods would belong to a male or female.
Writing equipment is also found in the graves of children, some as young as 10 years old. We know from literary sources that children learnt to read and write from the age of six or seven, either being tutored at home or attending a school, usually at the centre of town. In either case, parents had to pay for their child’s education. Teachers used strict discipline and endless repetition to teach both boys and girls to read, write, and use basic arithmetic. It was mainly elite boys who continued their education into their late teens and learnt about literature, rhetoric, and philosophy. Writing equipment was presumably placed into the grave both as a poignant display of what the child would have aspired to in life and to celebrate and commemorate his or her early achievements.
For similar reasons, writing equipment was also depicted on funerary monuments and wall-paintings, symbolising the status and power of a magistrate or professional skills of a literate individual. In many ways this explicit link between writing and commemoration is particularly apt. In Roman Britain, at least, the arrival of literacy means that for the very first time eye-witness accounts of everyday activity authored by those resident in the country still survive, over 1,500 years later. That their words live on is a fine monument to the power of literacy.
There is another type of object that inkwells are sometimes confused with: the copper-alloy element of a lantern that held the wick. Lanterns were high-status objects, used mainly outside the home, but they very rarely survive intact because they were made from composite bronze and organic (horn) elements. Lantern burners are a similar size and shape to inkwells, but can be distinguished by the design of the base and the presence of a central wick holder (see below) and two lateral tubes. Three such lantern burners are now in the Museum of London, and other examples are known from Germany, while a remarkably complete example from south-west Suffolk (above) is now in Lincoln Museum.
Further information More information about writing equipment in the Roman world can be found in a forthcoming book: H. Eckardt (2017) Writing Power in the Roman World: literacies and material culture, Cambridge: CUP. A catalogue of metal inkwells from across the Roman Empire will be available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.5284/1039969