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Stylus with old Roman joke found in London.

Roman Pen Inscribed With Precursor to Modern Classic Joke Found in London

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An expert on inscriptions has deciphered some Roman writing on a pen as a witticism left by its owner, with a sentiment remarkably similar to those found on tongue in cheek souvenirs of today. However, this ‘joke’ has serious implications for the study of the Roman Empire. It shows how interconnected the various parts of the Empire were and the level of literacy among traders and scribes, even in the provinces.

The stylus was found by archaeologists from MOLA, a private archaeological and heritage company, working under the supervision of the Museum of London. MOLA’s experts made the find under Bloomberg European Headquarters, the well-known financial media company in the heart of the British capital, between 2010 and 2014. This site was once “on the bank of the river Walbrook – a now lost tributary of the Thames” reports the MOLA blog. In the heart of the Bloomberg European HQ complex are a restored Roman road and a temple to the god Mithra.

London Mithraeum, Bloomberg’s European headquarters, London. (Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany (CC BY-SA 2.0)

London Mithraeum, Bloomberg’s European headquarters, London. (Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A distinctly tourist gift

Archaeologists found an inscribed iron stylus, that was used to write in the classical world. The metal object was used to inscribe words on a tablet made of wax. The stylus was one of “about 14,000 artifacts” found reports the Daily Mail . The stylus dates to about 70 AD, not long after the Roman conquest of Britain and the revolt of Boudicca (61 AD).

The stylus is about 5 inches long (15 cm) and was in a poor condition when it was taken out of the ground and was badly corroded. Because of this state and the tiny writing, experts could not read the inscription on the pen. Some 200 styluses have been found at the site, but this was the only one that had any inscription or marking. According to MOLA “inscribed styluses are exceptionally rare: archaeologists have found only a handful of examples from across the whole Roman Empire”. The message was probably etched by a scribe, who appeared to have run out of space as the last word on the message was missing.

The stylus is one of thousands of artifacts found at the London Mithraeum. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The stylus is one of thousands of artifacts found at the London Mithraeum. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

An ancient joke in modern times

The Roman pen was painstakingly conserved by experts. It took several years for the message to be deciphered by the leading Roman epigrapher Dr. Roger Tomlin. He translated the message as follows according to the MOLA blog :

"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."

The curator of  the Ashmolean Museum, Paul Roberts, after seeing the message on the stylus told the Daily Mail , “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

The message means that the person bought a pen from the city, almost certainly a reference to Rome, as a gift. The joke is that the stylus was all that the traveler could afford. It is reminiscent and perhaps the origins of the modern classic, “I Went to London and All I Got You Was This Lousy Pen”.

This little joke, revealed by the epigrapher, is similar to the many humorous souvenirs or novelty gifts brought home by modern vacationers to family and friends.

Temple to Mithra beneath the Bloomberg Space. (Gapfall / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Temple to Mithra beneath the Bloomberg Space. (Gapfall / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

What does the joke tell us?

The stylus and its message might only have been a little bit of fun, but it can offer historians an insight into the Roman Empire . The message, deciphered by Dr. Tomlin shows that London, then known as Londinium was in regular contact with the capital of the Empire. In 70 AD the Roman-British city was on the edge of the Empire and yet was apparently already integrated into its economy and society.

Moreover, it also demonstrates that there was a high level of literacy at least among traders and scribes, even at an early date in the history of the Roman province of Britannia. CNN reports that the message shows that writing was important for “traders, soldiers and officials to keep in contact with peers, friends and family” who often lived in other parts of the Empire. The pen with the joke shows that the ancient Romans had a similar sense of humor to people today.

The Bloomberg site where the stylus was discovered is still being excavated and more finds are expected. There may even be other writing implements with humorous messages, unearthed. The pen, inscribed with a joke, is on public display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England.

Top image: Stylus with old Roman joke found in London.             Source: MOLA

By Ed Whelan

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