Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Verena Schaltenbrand Obrecht, Stilus: kulturhistorische, typologisch-chronologische und technologische Untersuchungen an römischen Schreibgriffeln von Augusta Raurica und weiteren Fundorten (2 vols.). Forschungen in Augst, Bd 45.1-2. Augst: Museum Augusta Raurica, 2012. Pp. 794. ISBN 9783715100456. €134.00.

Reviewed by Stefanie Hoss, Small Finds Archaeology, Nijmegen (

Version at BMCR home site

The study reviewed here—the author's dissertation—is a thorough investigation into the stilus as a Roman writing implement. Its aim, stated in the introduction (pp. 17-20), is to give a typology and chronology of the finds, look into the cultural history of these implements, and try to reconstruct the production techniques and the characteristic marks these leave. It succeeds admirably in all these. The scope of the study is nothing if not comprehensive, encompassing more than 3000 stili, mainly from three sites in Switzerland (Augusta Raurica, Aventicum, Vindonissa).

The study is positioned as it were on the other end of the spectrum from R. Bagnall's or R. Cribiore's work:1 While the latter two focus on writing as an act, with the necessary implements being of secondary importance, the book under review here focuses on (one of) the implements, with the act of writing relegated to second place. Typical for a German-language study, the book is divided into three parts with the text in the first volume and the catalogue and plates combined in the second volume. While the book is written in German, the author has found an efficient way to make the description of the typology of the different forms easily comprehensible for non-German speaking researchers: Aside from German, the short descriptions are also given in French, Italian and English. This may be a consequence of being a citizen of that multi-language republic, Switzerland, but it is a happy solution to a frustrating problem. Most typological studies just offer a summary in various other languages (which this book also has), but these are no help for the person trying to identify finds and grappling with the intricacies of typological descriptions in a foreign language.

After the introduction, the study proceeds to explain the cultural setting and use of the stilus, starting with a short overview of Roman writing implements and their transport containers – Romans used stili and reed pens of different tip sizes for different writing materials and packed them away in a leather pen case – as well as the different writing surfaces used (papyrus, wood, wax) to write on (pp. 21-31). Interesting information on the usual body and hand posture for writing in Roman times emerges from the subsequent short, but well-illustrated overview on depictions of writing in the Roman world (pp. 31-36 and 48-49).

The cultural study continues with an excursus on the school system in the Roman world (pp. 37-42) and the subjects taught to most children – boys and girls alike – namely, the famous three Rs: reading, writing and (elementary) arithmetic. The author makes a good case for wax tablets and stili having been also used to jot down numbers during longer or more complex arithmetical processes, which were mostly done with the help of an abacus or counting pieces. The latter are often only interpreted as gaming pieces, but it seems logical that they could have had a double use as counters as well.

In the following part, the author looks into the distribution of writing implements in graves, with a complete catalogue of Swiss finds and a fair number of comparisons from the rest of the Roman world (pp. 42-46). It turns out that these implements are not only found in the graves of grown-ups, but also quite often in those of children. It seems that writing – or rather learning to write—was seen as a typical occupation of childhood during school age (between the ages of 6 and 12), resulting in the provision of a set of writing implements for the netherworld.

The second chapter (pp. 47-92) takes a more detailed look at the stilus as an implement. In its form and use it is unsurprisingly similar to its modern counterparts, for instance in the fact that there were different stem sizes. The author concludes that, as today, these were probably made for larger and smaller hands (men/women) and that extra thick ones were for younger children, which is proven by finds of such stili in children's graves. Both the occasional form with a five- to eight-sided stem, similar to modern pencils, as well as the fairly common decoration on both ends (near the tip and near the eraser) were used to enhance the grip of the hand on the stem. The eraser at one end is also mirrored by modern pencils and demonstrates that the conditions that shape writing implements have less to do with the changing scripts and writing materials and more with the human condition, both physical – in hand size and body posture—and psychological, e. g. the liability of making mistakes and the desire to quickly erase them. This is topped by the observation elsewhere in the book that some of the erasers of bone stili have marks of human teeth, probably the result of being chewed on while the writer was thinking. A further constant is the way in which handwriting and writing implement influenced each other, a fact briefly discussed in the present work (pp. 49-51), but mainly outside its scope.

The rest of the chapter examines the material of the stili and their different uses. Because the overwhelming majority of stili are made from metal, a study of bone stili is placed here as well as one on stili with remarkable extras, e. g. stili with apotropaic signs, maker's marks, or mottos on them. This is followed by a description of the several writing materials for which stili could be used and the different uses they could be put to besides writing (which include the use as a weapon) as well as the traces the use and re-sharpening left on stili. The next part of the chapter is an inserted piece on the famous deposit find of spatulas and stili from the Titelberg in Luxemburg, which is discussed extensively (with comparisons) for the first time here. In my opinion, this part should have been published elsewhere as a stand- alone article, as it does not really fit into the present study (only 5 of the 21 implements are stili) and it is unlikely that researchers looking for it will be searching here. An excursus on the post-Roman use of stili concludes the chapter.

The third chapter (pp. 93-208) mainly consists of the typological study. This is admirably set up: earlier typologies are thoroughly explained and commented upon first, then the difficulties, aims and methods of the present typological are set out, and finally a set description is provided first of the several stilus-families and then of the different form-groups. These are given as a standard set, with drawings of examples on the left page and short descriptions in four languages on the right, followed by the catalogue and plate numbers of the examples collected in the catalogue plus comparisons from elsewhere. The pages in this part of the book are marked by a grey border and are thus easily found – another bonus for finds specialists.

According to Schaltenbrand Obrecht, all stili can be separated into groups according to four characteristics: The form of the tip, the form of the eraser, the form of the stem and the decoration. Statistical research has shown that the chronologically most sensitive characteristic is the stem, and it is therefore used to determine form-families, each of which encompasses several form-groups. As every stilus seems to be slightly different from the rest and combinations of the four characteristics seem to be less standard than might be expected, the authors has resorted to categorizing them into different form-groups sharing chronologically relevant characteristics rather than types. In this manner, stili could differ in one or several characteristics from a certain form-group, but still belong to it.

The identification of stili is difficult at best anyway, as the majority are made of iron, which very often is so rusted that they are taken for nails – even when decorated with inlays of other metals, as these become invisible under substantial iron corrosion plaques. Schaltenbrand Obrecht recommends X-raying badly conserved examples directly after excavation (before further deterioration sets in) and before conserving, as well-done X-rays already show many details and can be used both as a help for identification and as a guide during conservation.

The chronology of the stili form-groups was determined with the help of the post-excavation processing system used in Augusta Raurica, in which specialists routinely date all contexts according to their ceramic spectrum (and possible coins). While some contexts do not contain enough material for dating, and in others the material is too diverse, the method is usually reliable. This thorough approach to large-scale excavation has already been to the benefit of a number of specialist finds studies from Augusta Raurica, as it offered reliable chronologies for the studies on fibulae, jewellery, spoons, medical instruments, bone artefacts and glass published in the same series (Forschungen in Augst). 2

Subsequent to the typological study, the author speculates on the possible organisation of stilus production, as the wide spectrum of combinations of the four characteristics seem to suggest a division into different tasks, possibly even in different businesses. In this system, one smith would just make the raw forms, while another cut the tip and eraser out of the raw piece and added the decoration. She proposes that these items were made in specialized workshops in large numbers and were then sold on to traders, who distributed them in large areas in the Roman provinces, resulting in similar forms in both Augst (Augusta Raurica) and London.

The author then returns to the typological study and explains her choice of finds included into the catalogue, gives a characterization of the different findspots and discusses their relevance. This part, while very useful in itself, would in my opinion have been better placed at the beginning of the chapter.

The fourth chapter (pp. 211-238) is a study of the dissemination of writing (and written arithmetic) among the inhabitants of Augusta Raurica with the finds of stili as indicators. Schaltenbrand Obrecht at first explains that the stilus is a marker of "Romanisation" in the sense that writing was inherently writing Latin and thus the acquisition of a cultural technique closely connected to the conquerors and an important step of cultural adaptation. She then summarizes the development of the settlement Augusta Raurica and illustrates the distribution of stili in the city limits during different periods with the help of maps. This study gives interesting results, which demonstrate for instance that stili turn up quite early already in the areas with a lot of trade, being most numerous in areas with shops, along streets and in the porticoes between them. The fifth chapter (pp. 239-294) is concerned with technology and metallurgy, presenting the results of a host of different inquiries on these questions as well as detailed descriptions of the details of the form and decoration of stili and the way these were made. It concludes with a detailed scientific report on the production and conservation of metal stili.

The penultimate chapter of the book (pp. 295-308) is an account of the methods and technical ways and means used during the recording of the material. It describes in considerable detail how to set up a program of recording a large number of finds, which computer program is useful and how to make and combine different manners of taking picture of the finds (drawings, photos, X-rays) as well as the statistical methods necessary to get a useful chronology. Like the preceding chapter, this part will be most useful for researchers dealing with large amounts of similar finds.

The last chapter (I am excluding the summary), titled "results and outlook" (pp. 303-308) summarizes the results of the study and explains its limitations as well as giving impulses for further research.

This thorough and well-written study on stili is not likely to be surpassed—or even equalled—any time soon and is poised to become the standard work for many decades to come. But apart from its obvious use for anybody dealing with metal finds who may need to correctly identify and date stili, it can also be used as an example of how to set up a study on a single implement by fruitfully combining multiple approaches and explaining every step.


1.   R. Bagnall, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East. Sather Classical Lectures, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011 and R. Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Princeton 2001.
2.   Many of the older reports can be downloaded for free from the official site of the Archaeological Park Augusta Raurica

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