‘Roman Biro’ – complete with joke – found at London building site

Iron stylus uncovered at Bloomberg building site in City of London is ‘one of the most human finds’, say archaeologists

It sounds just like the kind of joke that is ubiquitous in today’s cheap-and-cheerful souvenir industry: “I went to Rome and all I got you was this lousy pen.” But the tongue-in-cheek inscription recently deciphered on a cheap writing implement during excavations in the City of London is in fact about 2,000 years old.

“I have come from the city. I bring you a welcome gift with a sharp point that you may remember me. I ask, if fortune allowed, that I might be able [to give] as generously as the way is long [and] as my purse is empty,” it reads.

The message was inscribed on an iron stylus dating from around AD70, a few decades after Roman London was founded. The implement was discovered by Museum of London Archaeology during excavations for Bloomberg’s European headquarters next to Cannon Street station, on the bank of the river Walbrook, a now-lost tributary of the Thames.

Michael Marshall, a senior Roman finds specialist, said it was an “absolutely spectacular” object. “It’s one of the most human objects from Roman London. It’s very unpretentious and witty. It gives you a real sense of the person who wrote it,” he said.

The Bloomberg dig took place between 2010 and 2014 and uncovered some 14,000 artefacts, which archaeologists are still working through. The inscription was exceptionally difficult to read, partly due to corrosion, and is only legible now following work by conservators. Other finds included more than 400 waxed writing tablets, which offer insights into the first decades of Roman rule in Britain.

“The tablets are hugely interesting documents, largely relating to legal and business matters,” said Marshall, “while the stylus is an exceptionally personal object, which you can pick up on the amount of affection and good humour.”

At 132mm, the stylus is about the length of a modern pen, with its elaborate and expressive jokey text crammed into its slim design. Archaeologists describe it as unparalleled in its poetry and humour as barely a handful of inscribed examples have been found anywhere in the whole Roman Empire.

The inscription reflects the importance of writing and literacy in allowing traders, soldiers and officials posted across the Roman Empire to keep in contact with friends and family perhaps hundreds of miles away. It would have enabled two people separated by geography to share a joke, said Marshall.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said Paul Roberts, curator of an exhibition titled Last Supper in Pompeii at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where the stylus is now on display until January 2020.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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