Writing on wood : Classification of Writing-materials

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Tab. Vindol. II Introductory chapters

Tab. Vindol. II Category introductions

Tab. Vindol. II Abbreviations and Bibliography

Digitising Vindolanda

Tab. Vindol. II Addenda and Corrigenda

Tab. Vindol. I Introductory Chapters

Archaeology and Conservation

Writing on wood

The Content and its Significance

Palaeography

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Classification of Writing-materials

Roman Writing-tablets

The Format of the Vindolanda Tablets

From Alan Bowman and David Thomas, Vindolanda: the Latin writing tablets London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 1983, pp. 32-33

One of the most important ways in which the Vindolanda tablets add to our knowledge is in forcing us to revise our ideas about writing and writing-materials in the Roman period. In order fully to understand what advances may be made in this area it is necessary to examine in some detail the evidence previously available to us1.

In general, scholars interested in the history of writing-materials have categorised them by use of the terms 'hard' and 'soft'. By 'hard' they generally mean: stone, pot, various types of metal, plaster, ivory etc.; by 'soft', cloth, leather, parchment or skins of other kinds, and papyrus. Alternatively, writing-materials might be distinguished as, on the one hand, those which are incised and, on the other hand, those which are written (whether with a brush or pen); this leads to a similar, but not identical categorisation. Leaving wood aside for the moment, we would then say that the category of incised materials includes: inscriptions cut in stone, metal plates (gold, silver, bronze, lead), ivory, plaster (graffiti incised in wet plaster) and occasionally pots or sherds (before drying). In the other category we would place papyrus, leather, parchment or other skins, vellum, cloth, stone pellets, painted plaster and ostraka (potsherds). Such a distinction can be of considerable importance to the palaeographer and we shall return to it (Vol. I Ch. 4). Nevertheless, it is worth stressing that, if applied too rigidly, such a categorisation can be unhelpful or even positively misleading. To take the distinction where it appears at its clearest: on stone inscriptions we find lettering of a monumental type which differs sharply from business or cursive writing which is found on documentary texts on papyrus. The letter forms in literary texts may, however, resemble monumental lettering much more closely. Conversely, texts incised on metal, plaster or pot (particularly when wet) frequently resemble cursive hands on papyrus more closely than they resemble monumental writing.

The force of these observations is particularly clear in dealing with the use of wood as a writing material. It is clearly nonsensical to attempt to categorise wooden tablets as 'hard' or 'soft' material; but it is also misleading to categorise them, as is usually done, as 'incised' rather than `written' material. They are usually classified as 'incised' since most wooden writing-tablets which have survived from the classical world are of the type which was hollowed out in the centre and filled with wax, the writing being then cut into the wax by means of a metal stylus2. But the vast majority of the Vindolanda tablets are not of this type - they are thin slivers of smooth wood which are written with pen and ink and were clearly always intended to be used in this way. Furthermore, even those tablets which were originally designed for the use of a stylus on wax are sometimes written with pen and ink (a phenomenon which is not confined to Vindolanda)3.

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