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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



List of abbreviations

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Tablets guide

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. 35-45

A glance at the lists above will show that the Vindolanda collection is unique in Britain from several points of view. First, it is by far the earliest coherent body of written material from this province. Second, the number of tablets (even though there are many blank or almost blank pieces) more than quadruples the number of British documents known to us. But above all (apart perhaps from the palaeographical importance of the collection, for which see Ch.4(Vol. I Ch. 4) the tablets are of outstanding interest because the majority of them show a most unusual format.

Marichal divided Latin writing-tablets into the categories of 'tablettes de cire' and 'tablettes de bois'39. By the first designation he apparently meant tablets which were hollowed out to be filled with wax; and by the second, tablets with a flat surface which were intended for writing in ink. For convenience we have adopted a similar division between, on the one hand, 'stylus tablets' which correspond to 'tablettes de cire' and, on the other hand, wooden leaf tablets which were made with a smooth surface to take ink writing. In fact, not a few of the tablets of the stylus type, though designed for writing incised into wax, were in practice written in ink40. Several of the so-called 'tablettes de cire' from Pompeii and Herculaneum contain both incision and ink writing and two of the tablets from Britain listed above also contain ink writing. However, whether or not they were used for ink writing, it should be stressed that virtually all of the tablets listed above are of the stylus type. One of the most important features of the Vindolanda tablets is that almost all are not of this type. The vast majority of them are small, thin slivers of wood, smooth and fine-grained (Vol. I Ch. 1). There can be no doubt that they were made for writing with pen and ink. We use the term 'leaf tablets' as a convenient designation for these.

In fact, this category of leaf tablets contains a handful of examples which were known before the discovery at Vindolanda. These may be extracted from the lists given above:
i.A fragment of a tablet from Dacia (2)41.
ii.A letter from London (6.(i) g).
iii.One of the tablets in the Museum of London (6.(i) i).
iv. Possibly some examples from Vindonissa (5)(Vol. I Ch. 2).
As for subsequent discoveries, we may add:
v. Another tablet in the Museum of London (6.(i) i).
vi. The tablets from Lechlade (6.(i) k).
vii. The tablets from Ribchester (6.(i) 1).(FN41a)
It is also worth noting that some twenty years ago a tablet of the same kind, written in Aramaic and dating to the second century A.D., was found in the Dead Sea Caves42.

There is no doubt, then, that the Vindolanda find has presented us with a large number of tablets of a kind which was hitherto represented by only a handful of examples, the significance of which had not been properly appreciated. The sheer number of leaf tablets in the Vindolanda collection must tell us something important about the use of writing-materials of different kinds, at least in this part of the Empire. For it is hardly conceivable that the preponderance of leaf tablets over stylus tablets can be peculiar to Vindolanda, especially when so many of them came, as private letters, from a variety of places (Vol. I Ch. 3). It seems likely to us that these leaf tablets, cheap and fairly easy to make, functioned as the standard writing-material for letters and ephemeral documents in those parts of the Empire which were far removed from the source of papyrus; whilst the heavier, more expensive and more durable stylus tablets would be used, on the whole, for more important documents which might need to be kept for a longer time - wills, certificates, contracts and the like. We do not expect to find this reflected in the East, where papyrus was made, or, indeed, in Italy where it must have been easily imported. But in the north-western provinces, where timber was plentiful, it will have been simple to produce wooden leaves which perhaps required only to be cut, flattened and smoothed off with an abrasive. As we might expect, there is a limited but significant amount of evidence in the literary sources of the Roman period which reflects the use of tablets of this sort. Our literary authorities generally think of them as having been made from lime-wood, which makes good sense for the Mediterranean countries but not for the more northerly provinces where the lime did not grow43.

Before looking at the literary evidence in more detail, we must consider the ways in which these thin slices of wood were actually used for writing. We may begin by making a basic distinction between those leaf tablets which contain letters and those which contain accounts or other documents of an official nature.

(1)The letter format.

Pliny the Elder traces the origin of the phenomenon we are about to describe back to the use of leaves: folia cultrato mucrone lateribus in sese bifida tabellas primum demonstrauere geminas (NH 13.30). Two examples with which the Vindolanda letters may be compared were, in fact, already known. In the first place, the tablet from London (6. (1) g, above) was described as comprising two wooden leaves folded to face each other with the main text on the inner faces. The editors noted how the pieces match up at the break in the centre and the photograph suggests that the two leaves originally formed one piece of wood. The editors also noted that there is a small amount of 'stepping' to the extent of 1 mm at the joint. This could be deliberate or it could be the result of cuts made for scoring and folding on both inner and outer faces; if these cuts were slightly misaligned, the leaves would not separate cleanly. Thus, we may resolve the anxiety of the editors as to how the tablet was 'hinged'44. Our second example is the Aramaic tablet from the Dead Sea Caves which was described by Yadin as follows45: 'When opened, the four slats of wood (two of which were attached to each other) formed one slat about 17.5 cm wide and 7.5 cm long. It is inscribed in two columns, written from right to left. An incision had been made from the back so that the wood could be folded and it thus formed a kind of pinax.'

The Vindolanda letter format is identical. The leaf is used with the broad dimension as the width, the grain running horizontally. It is written in two columns (from left to right, of course), of which the left-hand column tends to be broader than the right. The leaf is then scored down the centre and folded with the letter on the inner faces. The address is written on the outer face of the half containing the second, or right-hand, column of the letter. Several of the Vindolanda letters contain notches cut in the right- and left-hand edges which we think might have served to anchor a binding cord which sealed the letter, either individually, or as one of a batch sent from one military post to another46. No indication of such notches is given in the example from the Dead Sea Caves but the London letter has a knob at the right-hand edge and a recess at the left which the editors thought was evidently designed to anchor the binding cord. It is possible that letters of this kind often travelled as part of a batch and were directed simply to individuals (identified by name and rank) within a military unit47.

As for the writing of the text, the pattern followed is a common one (with small variations) which may be illustrated by reference to No. 21 (248) and schematically represented in FIG. 6.

Fig. 6 Leaf-tablet: letter format

Fig. 6

Leaf-tablet: letter format

Image ownership:

© Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies

In other letters (on papyrus) the space at the left-hand side of line 2 was sometimes used for a docket recording the date of the receipt of the letter but this does not occur in our tablets48.The two-column format contrasts with Greek and Latin letters on papyrus. These are normally written in a single column, though in many cases the papyrus was folded several times into a narrow strip49. The only practical reason we can see for using the two-column format is that, in theory, the cut and fold would come between the columns and thus would not interfere with the writing; in practice, as we have said, the left-hand column very often overran the fold (which was made after the writing of the letter). We have not been able to determine whether Latin official or military letters on papyrus regularly employed a narrower column than Greek letters even on pieces of papyrus which were quite wide, though there certainly are some examples of narrow columns50. The format just described, occurring as it does in texts which come from a variety of places, is clearly a standard one for Latin letters. There can be no doubt that these thin slivers of wood were flexible enough to withstand folding without splitting apart51.

Finally, we should note one letter which presents an exceptional format (No. 37 (225)), being written on both sides of a single piece of wood. This carries only the name of the addressee, Crispinus, has several erasures and states that the letter is being written from Vindolanda. This must have been simply a draft which will have been discarded when the fair copy was made52.

(2)The format of official documents.

This may be analysed by reference to four examples, or groups of examples, which show significant differences, one from another.

(a). A group of official documents is comparable in format to the letters, being written along the broad edge of the leaf and parallel with the grain of the wood53. None of these documents is complete and none gives any concrete clue whether or not the writing might have continued in a second column on the right-hand side of a diptych (like the letters). It is not even clear that these documents were written on folded diptychs; the only slight indication comes in one example which has tie-holes and notches at the left-hand edge54.

(b). One single example, an incomplete leaf, contains writing on both sides55. The text is written across the grain of the wood and, presumably, along the short edge of the tablet. This is the case on both sides, but the curious feature is that the writing on one side is upside down in relation to that on the other. It is impossible to rule out the notion that this is merely a rough copy of something which was subsequently put into a proper form.

(c). We have one diptych without notches or tie-holes which contains an account of foodstuffs56. The writing is across the grain and parallel with the short edge of the tablet. Presumably, like the letters, this diptych was folded with the writing on the inner faces. Turner has recently shown that this characteristic is described in Latin by the term transversa charta (i. e. with the page rotated through 90° in comparison with the letter format) and has described the examples found on papyrus as rotuli or vertical rolls57. He notes that this format occurs only in documents, and we might equally emphasise the fact that writing transversa charta does not occur in the letters from Vindolanda but only in the documents (as may be seen from (a), above, the converse is not true).

(d). Turner has also shown that the characteristics of the rotulus are applicable to our final example, a multi-leaved set of tablets containing a record of food supplies58. The detailed physical description of this document need not be repeated here, save for the purpose of correction59. It is evident that four of the five substantially preserved pieces comprise two diptychs (like that described in (c), above), each of which measured about 17 by 6.5 cm. The fifth piece may have stood as a single half-diptych at the end of the series; its general state of preservation suggests that the writing on it may not have been protected by a corresponding lower half, and the bottom edge looks as if it has been severed much more cleanly than the edge of the other leaves, which were scored on the back (after writing) to enable the leaf to be folded latitudinally without being completely severed (hence the fibres at the point of folding are ragged and bent). The order of the leaves can, of course, easily be established by the date sequence in the text itself. We should also note that there are tie-holes and V-shaped notches at the top and bottom edges of each diptych and at the top of the fifth piece. The notches may have served to anchor binding cords passed round the outside of the bundle60. The angled cuts at the corners (top left of the third and fifth pieces and bottom left of the fourth) are perhaps most likely to indicate to the user the location of the left-hand margin in order to enable him to hold the set of tablets the right way up when opening it.

It is clear that this multi-leaved document could well have been arranged in a concertina format, the tops and bottoms of each diptych being joined by thongs through the tie-holes not to each other, but to the bottom and top of the preceding and following diptych (FIG. 7, below). The reader could then, by grasping the top and bottom leaves of the bundle and drawing them apart, obtain a single continuous column of text. The only possible alternative, as far as we can see, is that these leaves were arranged as a series of individually-sealed and independent diptychs which were simply tied into a bundle with strings around the outside (FIG. 7, below). The concertina format is obviously the more attractive and more convenient to use, and Turner has favoured it. It seems obvious that if the fifth piece was a single half-diptych at the end of the series then the concertina format is much the more likely arrangement. If it did have a corresponding lower half (now lost), then the format of independent diptychs cannot be excluded (though even then the concertina remains possible).

Fig. 7 Leaf-tablets, concertina format and as independent diptychs

Fig. 7

Leaf-tablets, concertina format and as independent diptychs

Image ownership:

© Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies

Fig. 8 Stylus diptych

Fig. 8

Stylus diptych

Image ownership:

© Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies

This can be described as comparable to a rotulus - a vertical roll written transversa charta. Turner has challenged the comparison with the codex, and it is appropriate to emphasise that we agree that the Vindolanda document can in no way be described as a primitive codex. It clearly lacks one of the features essential to the codex form, namely writing on both sides of the leaf (some tablets, e.g. Nos. 3 (160), 37 (225), are written on both sides, but there is no sign that these were arranged in this kind of format). We consider, nevertheless, that the existence of this wooden notebook in this format at a period which was clearly an important one for the development of the codex61 may be of some significance for that development.

Turner has drawn attention to two passages in our literary authorities which have a particular bearing on the rotulus62.Suetonius (Divus Iulius 56.6) clearly describes the use by Julius Caesar of the paged notebook, superseding the previous practice of sending reports written transuersa charta. Second, a passage from Juvenal (6.482), longi relegit transuersa diurna, is said to refer to accounts written on a narrow roll, held vertically. These examples indicate that we might well expect to find evidence for the use of such wooden leaves in our literary sources and that such literary evidence might be illuminated in turn by the evidence of the physical objects now available to us for the first time in considerable quantities. A fairly brief review of our sources will suffice63.

Our most striking piece of evidence comes from the historian Herodian, writing in the third century. Describing the list of proscribed persons drawn up by the Emperor Commodus, which eventually led to his assassination, he writes64: Image of Greek text A recent translation of this passage, which refers to 'hinged tablets', is a trifle misleading65 for there is no mention of hinges here. Clearly Herodian is talking of thin tablets which were made of lime-wood and were folded face to face by being bent Image of Greek text. These words amount to an accurate description of the wooden leaf tablets found at Vindolanda and, more recently, elsewhere (except, of course, that the British examples are not made of lime-wood66. That the authenticity of Herodian's story has been questioned is also of some interest because the suspicion springs from the fact that Cassius Dio tells a similar story about the Emperor Domitian in which there is also a reference to the kind of writing-tablets used67Image of Greek text. Again, the description is obviously of a diptych made of lime-wood. If it is correct that Herodian has borrowed the tale from Dio68, the fact that he has amplified the description with details presumably drawn from his own knowledge of everyday objects is noteworthy. Dio makes further mention of such tablets Image of Greek textin a story which he tells about Ulpius Marcellus, governor of Britain in the reign of Commodus69. We may remark the fact that Marcellus is said to have made use of them whilst campaigning in the north; this presupposes their presence on the frontier area, a fact which the finds at Vindolanda strikingly confirm. These references might all appropriately be taken in connection with the format which we have described above as the letter format.

Apart from the passages of Suetonius and Juvenal, there is one later testimony which might be taken to refer to something like the wooden counterpart of the rotulus. In discussing technical aspects of the use of bark as a writing material, Isidore of Seville wrote:
codex multorum librorum est; liber unius uoluminis. et dictus codex per translationem a caudicibus arborum seu uitium (quasi caudex) quod se in multitudinem quasi ramorum contineat. uolumen liber est, a uoluendo dictus. liber est interior tunica corticis quae ligno cohaeret . . . quia ante usum chartae uel membranorum de libris arborum uolumina fiebant, id est compaginabantur70.
This means that volumina were made from the interior coat of bark, presumably cut into sections and joined together (compaginabantur). This seems to us to allow, though hardly to compel, the interpretation that Isidore is describing an articulated rotulus made from slivers of wood. We might note that, in general, the ancient sources do not differentiate carefully between the use of bark and the use of the wood of the tree. John the Lydian refers to the ancient practice of using bark and lime-wood tablets for writing71. Martianus Capella mentions the use of the bark of the lime tree, and the evidence of a letter of Jerome shows that the use of bark for correspondence was known in Cicero's time to be quite an old practice72. The sources sometimes refer to the manufacture of tablets e cortice and sometimes e libro, and trees other than the lime are said to have been a source of material for such tablets73. As a further complication, it should be remarked that, although Herodian and Dio in particular suggest that the lime-wood tablet is distinctively of the leaf type, there is some evidence that lime-wood might also be used for making tablets of the stylus type74. It is clear that the Vindolanda leaf tablets were not made from lime-wood, but this does not substantially affect our attempt to relate their format to the literary evidence for tablets which are obviously of essentially the same kind.

We have deliberately refrained from referring to our multi-leaved document as a codex of wooden tablets. This would not be accurate. We know that codices or codicilli of wooden tablets are normally bound sets of stylus tablets joined by thongs passed through holes bored in the edges75. It does seem to us, however, that a contribution might be made by considering some other literary evidence for sets of writing-tablets. It must be admitted that there are very few items which cannot be taken to refer to codices of stylus tablets; but, if one keeps an open mind, it seems to us likely that some pieces of evidence might well refer to sets of leaf tablets.

The Latin word most commonly used to refer to notebooks is pugillaria and it is this which is most relevant to our present enquiry, even though the word is sometimes demonstrably used to refer to tablets of the stylus type76. As the derivation of the word suggests, pugillaria are small tablets which could easily be held in the hand. A fragment of Suetonius makes explicit the connection between pugillaria and codices:
nec pugillaria nec pugillar dici potest aliter, quia proprium nomen est huius rei codices, inde per diminutionem codicilli, ut pute codicilli triplices77.
This might very well be thought to refer to stylus tablets, as might a passage from the fourth-century grammarian Charisius (pugillus est qui plures tabellas continet in seriem sutas) and the phrase pugillaribus codicibus which occurs in a second-century papyrus78. But the same cannot be said of an epigram of Martial on pugillares citrei which contains the line secta nisi in tenues essemus ligna tabellas; here the use of tenues seems definitely to indicate tablets of the leaf type which are conspicuous for their thinness79. This ought also to apply to the remark of Pliny the Elder on the use of maple for veneering (NH 16.68) (Vol. I Ch. 1); here pugillares are more naturally taken to indicate tablets of the leaf type since their thinness invites a comparison with veneers. Also, the reference in Ausonius (Epig.146.3) to a bipatens pugillar suggests a leaf tablet in the letter format (Vol. I Ch. 2).

Some other items on pugillaria are perhaps worth noting briefly. Pliny the Elder used to work with a slave standing by him holding a book and notebooks (libro et pugillaribus) - the latter, presumably, being inexpensive working notebooks80. Pliny himself cites Homer to prove that the use of pugillaria was of considerable antiquity81. It is impossible to be sure that Pliny has in mind folded tablets; Herodotus uses the term Image of Greek text in a context which makes it clear that this was a tablet of the stylus type; but there is one passage in the Iliad which looks as if it refers to tablets which were, strictly speaking, folded82. The Greek word Image of Greek text is evidently similarly derived, and Galen uses the wordImage of Greek textfor a notebook made from skin83. In sum, we might say that, although the evidence is far from consistent or conclusive, there is reason to believe that our ancient sources, in their references to pugillaria, envisage not only sets of stylus tablets but also wooden leaf notebooks of the type found at Vindolanda. To be sure, we also have evidence for the use of parchment notebooks in the later part of the first century. The best evidence for this comes from Martial and has been carefully analysed by modern scholars84. The parchment notebook, too, has to be put into the same context of materials and formats as our wooden leaf notebook. There are no physical examples of parchment notebooks known to us, but it is worth drawing attention to a parchment from Dura-Europos which was dated by Cumont to the first century B.C. or A.D.85. The series of ties at the right-hand edge of the sheet prove that a corresponding second sheet must have been attached at the right; the writing on this diptych was on the interior faces, the exterior being left blank. If this is correct, it does provide, in broad terms, a parallel for our wooden leaf diptych.

Our evidence therefore indicates two important features of writing-materials in the late first and early second centuries A.D. First, that the wooden leaf tablet was a common and well-known medium. Second, that the practice of folding writing-materials to make notebooks was also current. Our new evidence from Vindolanda is therefore of the first importance in that it provides physical data to illustrate these practices. In short (without making any assumptions as to the relationship between the Vindolanda tablets and the codex) it provides us with a unique and primitive example of an early book86.

The Vindolanda tablets should also modify our view of Roman writing-materials in another important respect. Earlier finds of writing-tablets, as well as representations of tablets in Roman art, have led us to believe that, apart from papyrus and skins, the commonest type of writing-medium in the Roman world was the stylus tablet. But the overwhelming preponder-ance of leaf tablets in the Vindolanda collection gives us leave to doubt whether this is really an accurate impression. One might explain the high rate of survival of stylus tablets elsewhere by the fact that they are larger, more solid and less liable to disintegration. It is notable, too, that the texts on stylus tablets show a heavy preponderance of legal documents, which might reasonably be thought to require a more durable medium for longer survival. Leaf tablets could well be a more suitable medium for more ephemeral texts like the letters and accounts which form the bulk of the Vindolanda collection. They have the advantage of being cheaper, easier to make and simpler to use (though not, of course re-usable like the stylus tablets). In spite of the fact that very few such tablets were known prior to the discovery at Vindolanda, subsequent discoveries lead us to conclude that the use of leaf tablets was probably widespread, at least in the north-western areas of the Empire. The reason is obvious. These provinces were the furthest-removed from the source of papyrus, and it seems to us likely that the wooden leaf tablet was the counterpart of papyrus in these areas of the Roman world.

(3)The format of the stylus tablets.

This can be dealt with fairly briefly, since the data presented by the relatively small number of stylus tablets do not significantly modify conclusions reached by earlier scholars87. We have been somewhat hampered by our inability to make any progress in reading the exiguous remains on these tablets, several of which may have been used more than once. Two examples contain writing in ink rather than stylus scratches, but there are parallels for this phenomenon (Vol. I Ch. 2). Sets of stylus tablets normally consist of two or three tabellae which are bound together by thongs passed through holes bored in the rim. The front of each tablet is hollowed out to receive the wax, whilst the back is generally smooth. It is, however, normal to find that the back of one of the tablets in a set has a strip hollowed out in the centre, parallel to the short edge. This would carry the seals of the witnesses in a legal document, the signatures being written in ink on one or both of the panels thus formed on either side of the strip. This format can be simply illustrated (FIGS. 8 and 9).

Fig. 9 Stylus triptych

Fig. 9

Stylus triptych

Image ownership:

© Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies

Our Vindolanda examples, most of which are fragmentary or incomplete, are mostly explicable in terms of the format described. But there is one item with unusual features which cannot be so easily explained. The tablet with ink writing (No. 113) is hollowed out on both sides, as are two other tablets (Nos. 112, 117) which have traces of incision. But the former has a raised strip running down the centre parallel to the short edge (i. e. one side of the tablet has been hollowed in two recessed panels with this strip running between). The latter two examples, after first being hollowed on both sides, have had a strip more deeply cut in one side; this is more clearly identifiable as the seal-bearing strip discussed above. As may be seen from the diagram, one would expect to find this on the back of the second tablet in a diptych or triptych.

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