Wax tablets in the ancient world

This post was written jointly with Cassie Donnelly, who is a PhD student in the Program for Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas at Austin, and who contributed the ancient Near Eastern sections.

Normally this blog is all about writing on clay tablets, but just for a change, today we’re going to look at ancient writing on a different kind of tablet. Tablets made of wood (or sometimes ivory) with a recess filled with wax were a common writing support in the ancient Mediterranean world – a sharp stylus made of wood, metal, or bone would be used to write in the wax, while if a mistake was made or the text was no longer needed, it could be erased using the other, flattened, end of the stylus. Tablets could be joined together in pairs (as in this picture) or larger sets in a kind of ‘book’.

Two-leafed wax tablet with stylus. Photo: Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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Women’s writing in the ancient world

Although most of the literature that we have from the ancient Mediterranean and Near East was written by men, we do also have compositions by women – most famously the Greek poet Sappho, as well as other Greek and Roman poets (e.g. Corinna, Nossis, and Sulpicia: for more, see this list of ancient women authors); an ancient Mesopotamian priestess called Enheduanna, who lived in the 23rd century BCE, is often referred to as the first known author in history (although at least some of the hymns attributed to her actually seem to have been composed several centuries later). Similarly, most of the inscriptions that actually survive – including letters, archival documents, grave markers, public or legal texts, and religious dedications – will have been both commissioned and physically written/inscribed by men; even in cases where the text makes it clear that a woman is ultimately responsible for it, it is not necessarily the case that she actually wrote it (e.g. stone inscriptions would be carved by specialist craftspeople, probably men; letters were frequently dictated to scribes, mostly ditto). But we do have some ancient texts which show evidence of literate women actually engaging in the practice of writing, and it’s those – or at least a small selection of them – that I’d like to look at for this International Women’s Day post.

The most famous example from the Roman world comes from Roman Britain, specifically from the fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall, where a large number of  wooden writing tablets, with letters and administrative documents written in ink, have been found, mostly from around 100 CE. Amongst them is this letter, sent by a woman called Claudia Severa – the wife of an officer at another fort – to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the commander at Vindolanda, to invite her to a birthday party:

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Vindolanda Tablet 291. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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The Classics Christmas Charts — res gerendae

Term ended here in Cambridge at the beginning of December, so we’ve all been feeling Christmassy for a couple of weeks already. For anyone else who wants to get in the Christmas spirit, my graduate colleagues in the Faculty have been coming up with some classical Christmas songs – enjoy! (and do add your own suggestions in the comments!)

As term draws to an end, as Cambridge receives its first wintry snowfall of the year and as Christmas draws ever nearer, how do Cambridge Classics postgrads keep themselves occupied? Without our weekly dose of seminars, teaching and Faculty yoga, what keeps us ticking? The answer, it turns out, is a bit of festive fun: […]

via The Classics Christmas Charts — res gerendae

Londinium Calling

A very exciting announcement today of the publication of a group of writing tablets from Roman London, dating from the first century C.E. (i.e. the early period of Roman control of Britain). Features that have been reported include the earliest mention of ‘London’ (as ‘Londinio’ = ‘in Londinium’); the earliest dated handwritten document from Britain (January 8th, 57 C.E.); an example of someone practicing writing the alphabet; and contracts and legal documents providing all sorts of insights into the lives of people in Londinium. Continue reading “Londinium Calling”

Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar – 29.11.2013

This week’s GIS was a special session for MPhils and 1st-year PhDs to give short presentations about their proposed thesis topics – because two subjects in an hour and a half just didn’t seem like enough, so why not have six? The talks ranged over Greek and Latin literature, archaeology, and linguistics, with some lively discussion and feedback following each one.  Continue reading “Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar – 29.11.2013”

Caecilius est in metro?

I feel I have to share my recent discovery (sadly made via the internet rather than in person) that Wallsend Metro Station in Newcastle has bilingual signage in English and Latin:

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Image from Wikipedia

It also has pictures of “Romanised” local shops, of which the one of the Job Centre labelled “Forum Venalicium” – “slave market” – seems to be the most popular.