The Roman wooden tablets from the Bloomberg site in London

“Between 2010 and 2014, archeologists digging in London’s financial district, on the site of a new British headquarters for Bloomberg, made an astonishing discovery—a collection of more than four hundred wooden tablets, preserved in the muck of an underground river. The tablets, postcard-sized sheets of fir, spruce, and larch, dated mainly from a couple of decades after the Roman conquest of Britain, in A.D. 43, straddling the period, in the reign of Nero, when Boudica’s rebellion very nearly got rid of the occupation altogether.”

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Researchers believe this tablet is the earliest ever reference to London predating Tacitus’ mention of London in his Annals which were produced about 50 years later.
Dated AD 65/70-80, it reads “Londinio Mogontio” which translates to “‘In London, to Mogontius” (photo: BBC)

A volume on the tablets was recently (2016) published by Roger Tomlin, a Latin epigraphist. Epigraphers usually study texts carved in stone, where the writing follows certain conventions and is aimed to be legible, since it will be seen by many people. It is unusual to find texts of more private nature, and the Bloomberg tablets are just that: “They are, perhaps, reminiscent of the kind of communications that we, in the twenty-first century, might send by e-mail—functional, expedient, lacking in literary merit. There are notes of indebtedness, memos to merchants, and a reckoning of an account for beer.”

But besides the mundane content of these texts, their writing also escapes the norm of what official Roman inscriptions have gotten us used to: “While the lettering on Roman masonry is, for the most part, wonderfully regular, striding along in neat capitals, the tablets are written in cursive, which is wildly various in style and quality. Occasionally the writing is tidy and clear, but most often it is rushed, sloppy, fragmentary, and damaged, and can, to the uninitiated, even to one who knows Latin well, resemble not so much actual writing as a series of bewilderingly arbitrary strokes and curlicues.”

And a brief comment on how the tablets were used: “The wooden tablets were designed to be reusable; they were originally covered with a layer of wax, into which lettering was scratched with a stylus. But the wax has long since disappeared, and what is left are marks that the scribe inadvertently made by scratching right through it, onto the wood behind. To complicate matters, the tablets sometimes bear two or more layers of scratches, jostling and confusing each other. Thus Tomlin examines not traces but traces of traces. ”

The above excerpts all come from an interview Roger Tomlin gave recently for The New Yorker. Here (BBC) and here (The Guardian) you can see some more photos of tablets, of the site where they were found and the condition in which they were in during the excavation. This short video also shows the tablets and how they were treated and studied. The archaeological site was known from the 1950’s, when it had been partially excavated, and is known to have been in the heart of Roman London, but new excavations from 2010 onward were required before a new building for the news agency Bloomberg would be constructed. The ancient neighborhood also testified to a temple dedicated to the god Mithras, known as the London Mithraeum, which was excavated in 1954, dismantled and relocated, still visible today in the vicinity (Queen Vistoria Street).

Bloom

Over 700 artefacts from the Bloomberg excavation will be displayed in a public exhibition space that will sit within the new Bloomberg building, including the earliest-dated writing tablet from Britain. This tablet, as The Guardian notes, is “the earliest legal document and the earliest carrying a date from Roman Britain, was written on 8 January AD57, when Tibullus wrote promising to repay Gratus – both men described as freed slaves – 105 denarii, half a year’s pay for a Roman legionary, for goods delivered.”

The London Mithraeum exhibition is planned to open in autumn 2017.

The manuscripts of Timbuktu

2800Responsable is a French noun whose meaning is easy to guess at in English. There were few better words to describe the librarian then than as a responsable for a giant slice of neglected history, the manuscripts of Timbuktu, a collection of handwritten documents so large no one knew quite how many there were, though he himself would put them in the hundreds of thousands. The manuscripts contained some of the most valuable written sources for the so-called golden age of Timbuktu, in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the great Songhay empire of which it was a part. They had been held up as proof of the continent’s vibrant written history. Few had done more to unearth the manuscripts than Haidara [Abdel Kader Haidara, the librarian of Timbuktu]. In the months to come, no one would be given more credit for their salvation.

In person, the librarian was an imposing man with a handshake of astonishing softness, a drive-by of a greeting that left a hint of remembered contact, no more. He was well versed in the history and content of the documents, but appeared not so much a scholar as a businessman who controlled his affairs in a variety of languages via his mobile phones, or in person from behind a desk the size of a small boat. He was not the only proprietor of manuscripts in the city, but as the owner of the largest private collection and founder of Savama, an organisation devoted to safeguarding the city’s written heritage, he claimed to represent the bulk of Timbuktu’s manuscript-owning families.”

“By the end of 2012, however, Savama informed the German embassy in Bamako that between 80,000 and 120,000 manuscripts had been successfully evacuated from Timbuktu.”

The nail-biting story of how thousands of manuscripts were transported to safety in Mali in 2012 and 2013, thus saving them from a near certain auto-da-fé.

There seems to exist also a study project, the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project (supported by the University of Cape Town and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung), which has been “has been very much concerned with the diverse content of the manuscripts, the circulation of scholars and ideas, the economy of the manuscript book, and other aspects of the “work of scholarship” in Timbuktu.” But, besides examining manuscripts from Timbuktu, the project has expanded in order ” to encompass writing cultures from other parts of the African continent.” And in the project’s participants own words: “New discoveries of collections have been identified in Mozambique and Madagascar, in both Arabic and so-called Ajami (Makua in Arabic script, Malagasy in Arabic script). Existing collections in Zanzibar (in Arabic and Swahili) have been supplemented with new work on private libraries. A recent publication of a collection of legal materials from coastal Somalia has directed attention to materials there. In Ethiopia there is a long-standing tradition of Coptic Christian writing in Amharic and research on Amharic book arts is necessary; there are also texts written in both Arabic and Amharic in Addis Ababa archives. The list of examples goes on and covers many parts of the continent.

There are multiple questions that are emerging with the “rediscovery” of various manuscript collections on the continent. The two main areas that the project aims to focus on are “the history of books” in Africa, and the state of the archives in which these manuscript books reside. The former places the African world of books firmly within an international discussion in the growing field of “the history of books”, where it has no presence at the moment. The latter, a more practical issue, approaches the way in which archives are constituted and appropriated: the politics of the archive.”

The khipus of the Incas: another type of ‘writing’

Collata-coloured-khipu-cords-1024x683Peruvian twisted chords, known as ‘khipus’, have long been known as a means of keeping accounts. They are thought to have been used by the Incas and are attested as late as the 18th cent AD.

The village of San Juan de Collata on the Peruvian Andes invited Sabine Hyland, an anthropologist at the University of St. Andrews, to examine two specimens they thought had functioned as letters exchanged by local leaders in a revolt against Spanish authority.

She suggests that the knots, as well as “three-cord sequences of distinct colours, fibres and ply direction at the end of each khipu appear to represent lineage names”. She adds that “analysis of the khipus revealed they contain 95 different symbols, a quantity within the range of logosyllabic writing systems, and notably more symbols than in regional accounting khipus”. More interestingly, she claims that “the Collata khipus express syllables in a profoundly Andean fashion, using differences among the fibres of various animals, such as vicuña, alpaca and deer to indicate meaning. The reader must often feel the cords by hand to distinguish the fibre sources of these three-dimensional texts.”

(Info: The Courier)

March for Science

spellingCopying from The Guardian: “Hundreds of thousands of climate researchers, oceanographers, bird watchers and other supporters of science rallied in marches around the world on Saturday, in an attempt to bolster scientists’ increasingly precarious status with politicians.

The main March for Science event was held in Washington DC, where organizers made plans for up to 150,000 people to flock to the national mall, although somewhat fewer than that figure braved the rain to attend. Marchers held a range of signs. Some attacked Donald Trump, depicting the president as an ostrich with his head in the sand or bearing the words: “What do Trump and atoms have in common? They make up everything.”

More than 600 marches took place around the world, on every continent bar Antarctica, in events that coincided with Earth Day.”

People in favor of scientific research and evidence-based discussions also had a soft spot for spelling and grammar, as it turns out.

“Historical graffiti as sources. Methods and perspectives of a young research area”

ByronA conference on graffiti as historical sources is taking place between 20 and 22 April 2017 at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. The conference discusses these unofficial inscriptions, methods and techniques of study as well as preservation methods.

A graffito functions as a person’s makeshift signature in a public space, carved or painted by themselves in order to commemorate their presence on the spot. The picture shows the English poet’s Byron signature, which he carved himself at a column in the Poseidon temple in Sounion, Greece. Byron visited Sounion at the beginning of the 19th cent. AD. It is more than probable that Byron would be seen nowadays as a vandal; this only shows our changing cultural attitudes towards graffiti. There are many fascinating aspects of graffiti to be studied and highlighted, which I am certain the Munich conference will address.

Learning Latin in West Philadelphia

romanesA charter school in West Philadelphia named Boys’ Latin is offering compulsory courses in Latin, says an article in the WSJ.

“The traditional arguments for studying Latin are well known. More than half of English words have Latin roots, so students who learn Latin improve their vocabularies and linguistic skills. In addition, the discipline of studying Latin—the logic, the structure, the rigor—helps train young minds to think more clearly and systematically. All these arguments Mr. Hardy [the school’s chief executive officer] accepts and occasionally invokes himself. But for him Latin is also a way of addressing the most wretched fact of today’s Philly school system: Only 8% of young black men who graduate from one of the city’s public high schools will go on to a four-year college degree.”

And more arguments are listed in favor: because Latin “immediately raises expectations all around”; “you can’t fake it”, and “satisfaction … comes from [the] achievement when these boys learn it”; “partly it’s the school’s thing”, “it builds identity and esprit de corps.”; “it’s also what helps make Boys’ Latin attractive to the Philadelphia School Partnership, an influential group of donors whose mission is to get more of the city’s kids into great schools—and put more on the path to college.”

And the results? “Boys’ Latin is not without its critics, who point to so-so scores on state tests. Mr. Hardy argues that the scores, which have been rising, are still better than the alternatives for most young men in West Philly. For him the most important measure is that his students are getting their college degrees.”

Let’s see how things will evolve in the future.

PS1. As I was browsing through blog themes WordPress offers (it’s a new blog, so I’m trying out things), I noticed that blog templates are half in English and half in Latin.

PS2. To understand the image above, click here to see an excerpt from the “Life of Brian”, a 1979 Monty Pythons’ film.