Roman Writing Tools

Ensemble of Roman Writing Implements Based on Finds from Dura Europos

Wax tablets, Stylus, Enameled Seal Box, Seal Ring

Period: 175-250 CE
Materials: Wood, wax, linen cord, bone, copper alloy, enamel

INTRODUCTION - The Roman military maintained an extensive network of communications which linked outposts from northern Britain to the far reaches of Syria. Correspondence at Dura Europos is especially well documented. The finds are some of the richest trove of Roman military documents extant (Austin 2010). Written communications were so important that there was a scribal instruction program to teach trainees the official military hand. While papyrus was used extensively in the scriptorium, wax tablets were used for day to day writing and at least eight pages or fragments of pages were found in the excavations . A stylus, in Dura most commonly made of bone, but also occasionally bronze or wood , was used to write on the tablet. A small box  was used to hold the ties which secured a tablet against prying eyes. The ties were pulled through holes in the box and knotted within the cavity. Then the box was filled with molten wax which was then impressed with a seal. The box cover, often enameled, was then closed to protect it . Examples have been found elsewhere in the Empire with their seals intact. A number of copper alloy seal rings were found in the excavations.

Wax Tablets - Based upon Yale e-Catalogue item 1938.5999.3845. I made my tablets from thin pieces of spruce which I purchased. One thing I noticed in looking at the originals is the rather slapdash manner in which they were made. The lines delineating the central depression holding the wax were often crooked and overshot off the edges of the boards, giving the look of having been hurriedly made with little care for its appearance. I tried to mimic this and quickly lined out the depression with the edge of my chisel and then used that chisel to cut it out. Then I drilled out the holes on the side. Surviving fragments from Dura did not contain any wax but examples from Cologne and Nijmegen still contained black wax so I made a mixture of beeswax, rosin, and bone black, and quickly spread the liquid in the depression. It was a delicate exercise to get the wax to flow enough to fill the depression but not to have it bleed too much into the edges. I had a little bit of bleeding at the ends due to my overzealous tipping of the tablet. I threaded some linen cord through the holes in the side and called it done. From start to finish, construction did not take long to make, which I think is important to remember about an object that amounted to a disposable item in period. In the Yale e-Catalogue none of the entries for the wax tablet pages or fragments are provided with dimensions and no information is given as to what type of wood they might be made from. I looked at wax tablets found elsewhere in the Empire and saw that they were often about the size of a paperback book or smaller and that they appeared to be commonly made of even-grained softwood which had the look of spruce. One of the common timber trees of the region is the Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis) which possibly could have been used to make the tablets.

Stylus – Based upon numerous examples in the Yale e-Catalogue and especially item 1938.732.2. Over 100 styli found at Dura were made of a sliver of bone flatted on one end and sharpened into a point on the other. The Yale e-Catalogue does not specify the animal from which the bone originated, so I made my stylus from beef bone because I could get a piece which was sufficiently long. I split the bone down to near the correct dimensions, sawed it to the correct outline, and filed it down until it was smooth and felt nice in the hand.

Seal Box - Based upon Yale e-Catalogue item 1938.2587 for the seal box lid and item 1938.2116 for the seal box bottom. About twenty seal box parts, lids and bottoms, have been found at Dura Europos and several of the lids still retain traces of enamel. I chose a lid and then made a bottom to fit based upon surviving examples from Dura and elsewhere in the Empire as my guide.

There is a very detailed illustrated explanation of my casting process may be found ON THIS PAGE, what follows here is a digest.

Moldmaking - I prepared my two part flask using the casting medium Delft Clay, a form of fine grained sand casting. This involved packing both parts of the flask with the Delft Clay, making sure the surfaces were even. I then pressed the metal model, face down, into the clay of the bottom mold and placed a steel plate on top to press it down evenly. Then I placed the top on and gently pressed it in contact with the model. I removed the top, made at least one vent hole with a skewer and a pouring hole with a larger rod. Then I cut a pouring funnel on the topside. I put the two halves back together and placed them by the hearth in preparation for the pour.
Bronze Pouring - I heated the bronze with a MAPP gas torch in a ceramic melting dish in small hearth made of refractory bricks. The melting dish had been seasoned with borax prior to its initial use and as the metal melted I added some additional borax as flux to help it flow more easily. When the metal had melted and formed a distinct ‘button’ shape in the melting dish it was ready to pour. Any additional metal was poured into a small cast iron dish on the side. After a few minutes, the mold was opened to see if the casting was successful.
Clean Up - The raw casting had flashing lines and sprues which needed to be cut off and filed. Then the plates were rough polished on a bobbing wheel and finely polished with jeweler’s rouge.
Enameling РThe original piece is enameled in the champlevé technique and its lid had a circular enamel decoration on the center and a chevron shape on the pointed portion. The e-Catalogue said there were traces of blue enamel but I could not tell from the photograph which section was, so I decided to make the circles blue, and the chevron red. Both colors are common on Roman enamel work. I wet packed the enamel and fired it at 1400 degrees for 3 minutes. After it had cooled I cleaned it up by pickling the piece in acid and then grinding it down with an abrasive stone. I then repeated the packing, firing and cleanup process a number of times until the piece was completed.

The top of the box was hinged to the bottom with a steel pin which was peened over at the end. In period, most hinged copper alloy fibulae, buckles, strap ends and other fittings were secured with iron pins, not copper alloy pins as might be expected.

Seal Ring - Based in Yale e-Catalogue item 1938.5999.1513. A number of seal rings were found at Dura Europos and I chose to reproduce an example in copper alloy . I made a model for the ring from carving wax to fit my left index finger. I cast the ring in bronze using the Delft Clay method which I detailed in the seal box documentation. I cleaned up my casting, making sure the bezel was smooth and then I polished the ring. Because it was very difficult to tell from the photo exactly what the design was on the face of the original ring, I decided to make a simple design of XX (for the Cohors XX Palmyrenorum) and a laurel branch (because I am a companion of that order and it is a common Roman design element that can be found on extant rings). I drew the design on its face with a pen. Using an engraving chisel, I cut the design on the face of the ring. For the laurel leaves, I used a small stamp which I had made for this purpose from a piece of round stainless steel stock.

WHAT I LEARNED – This project was an exercise in observation and comparison of artifacts. I worked extensively with the Yale e-Catalogue to examine all the surviving examples of tablets, seal box parts, styli and rings to observe the similarities and differences in the items. I als0 looked at artifacts from other collections which exhibited like characteristics and used those to help me draw conclusions about design and construction of the often more fragmentary Durene items.

The seal box with its cast champlev√© enameled lid was challenging but I’m excited to work further on this technique as it was a common Roman decorative style for fibulae.

Austin, Jacqueline. Writers and Writing in the Roman Army at Dura-Europos. A dissertation submitted to the Department of English/Institute of Archaeology & Antiquity, College of Arts & Law, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, July 2010.

United Kingdom Portable Antiquities Scheme database,

Yale University Art Gallery e-Catalogue,

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