Just FYI - Roman Document Writing

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by jamesicus, Aug 11, 2017.

  1. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter


    Official documents were at first rolled Papyri eventually giving way to individual pages bound together, codex style, within substantial covers (essentially in the manner of modern books). They were produced by scribes mostly using chisel edged nib writing instruments made from reeds or primary bird wing feathers (penna) with ink made from cuttlefish bladder fluid (sepia) or iron gall (encaustum) on dried, formed and pressed water sedge fiber (papyrus = paper) -- sometimes on specially prepared split sheepskin (parchment) or calfskin (vellum). Very few original papyrus documents -- or even fragments of them -- from this period have survived due to the fragility of the materials employed.


    On occasion, "square capital" lettering based on CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS was employed for official document writing although its use was not widespread. The care required to render the formal letter forms, the width of the round letters and the generous spacing inherent in this hand made for slow writing and was particularly wasteful of scarce and valuable papyrus and/or parchment and vellum. This writing was probably reserved for use in producing especially important state documents and literary works.


    The Roman CAPITALIS RUSTICA writing hand -- somewhat informal compared to the "square capital" lettering based on CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS -- was commonly used for rendering official documents from approximately the second until the fifth century AD. Its narrow letterforms, freely rendered, make it eminently suitable for producing lengthly documents and, in comparison with "square capital" writing, was efficient in making good use of scarce and valuable papyrus and/or parchment and vellum. Toward the end of this historical period, the more cursive UNCIAL writing with joined letterforms was introduced and used for document writing.

    CAPITALIS RUSTICA writing hand exemplars:

    [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2017
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  3. Carausius

    Carausius Brother, can you spare a sestertius?

    Great info on the styles! I have a different view of documents on parchment and vellum. If carefully handled and stored parchment and vellum can last millenia. Rather than fragility, I suspect manner of handling/storage and casualty loss (fire, flood etc.) are more to blame for the lack of surviving documents from antiquity. Also, werent many documents "erased" and the parchments/vellum reused? I've seen antique documents on parchement and vellum - i.e. Magna Carta - that look remarkably well preserved after nearly 1,000 years. I've got a 300 year-old family will on parchment that's in great shape. The Dead Sea Scrolls weren't in great shape, but they survived.
  4. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter

    Yes, that is correct -- I should have said papyrus/paper documents are very fragile. I own several medieval parchment and vellum documents that are in very good condition. Many of the documents that I rendered (mostly on manuscript calfskin vellum) over fifty years ago remain in excellent condition. As you mention, it all depends on how they were stored -- moisture being the greatest enemy.

    Yes, they are called palimpsests. I was a young Calligraphy student in England when WW2 broke out (3 September 1939) -- it wasn't long before writing supplies (pen nibs, ink, paper - and especially parchment/vellum) were very hard to come by -- Stationary shops had pretty bare shelves. Our arts & crafts teacher (Mr. Wilfred Barton) somehow obtained a quantity of old vellum/parchment documents (maybe from our Town Hall?) that we made into palimpsests -- scraping off the existing writing using scratch pens -- rubbing down the surface using powdered pumice and water -- drying and pressing -- re-surfacing using dry powdered pumice and sandarac. It worked very well and we even re-processed some palimpsests to produce new ones.

    Here is an example (scrap portion) of an old document that I made into a palimpsest:

    Last edited: Aug 11, 2017
  5. IdesOfMarch01

    IdesOfMarch01 Well-Known Member

    Palimpsest is a great word. Most palimpsests allow the original writing to show through very faintly, and this noun has been used evocatively by authors to give the impression of looking at a current scene but seeing traces of earlier history.
    Volodya, zumbly, Orfew and 3 others like this.
  6. ancientcoinguru

    ancientcoinguru Supporter! Supporter

    Very interesting!
    jamesicus likes this.
  7. randygeki

    randygeki Coin Collector

    Very cool Jamesicus
    jamesicus likes this.
  8. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

    Yes, indeed. Not sure which I like the most. I'm looking to have labels made for my Marcus Antonius Legionary set. My son is having another shadow box made for them. I think I like the.....Gee, I can't make up my mind just yet.
    jamesicus and randygeki like this.
  9. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Tribunicia Potestas

    I'm not experienced at all in vellum, but have studied papyri from Egypt extensively during my studies, even translating directly from the source material. The University of California Berkeley has a pretty extensive trove of original documents. So I got a chance to decipher hieroglyphics, hieratic (a kind of cursive form of hieroglyphics usually written down in ink, rather than inscribed on stone), demotic, and Coptic, the language in which the Nag Hammadi Codex was written in. Great thread @jamesicus
  10. randygeki

    randygeki Coin Collector

    Both ^_^
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  11. Orfew

    Orfew Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus Supporter

    Thanks @jamesicus for another very interesting post. I hope that you continue to post on this topic. A very enjoyable read.
    jamesicus and Marsyas Mike like this.
  12. IdesOfMarch01

    IdesOfMarch01 Well-Known Member

    OK, here's your boring vocabulary lesson for the day.

    The art world has an equivalent to palimpsests: pentimento. A pentimento is a canvas that had a previous picture painted on it, and was scraped off to reuse for a new work, many times with part of the old picture still visible.
    jamesicus and Orfew like this.
  13. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Excellent paleography info. I took paleography at the University of Illinois as a graduate student. Our final exam, essentially, was to adopt a rare book from the special collections and determine its date and provenance. Fortunately, I chose a ms. late enough to be written on paper, and the paper had datable watermarks. ca. 1473. Erfurt, Germany. Carthusian monastery.

    Today I teach paleography a bit in my classes. But when I have a really dedicated medieval class, we actually make a medieval manuscript using period methods (except creating inks--I'm working on that one). We get an entire goatskin vellum prepared for calligraphy from https://www.pergamena.net/ . Then we cut goosefeather quills, prick and rule the vellum, and each class group chooses a text, and off they go. Below are a few pictures of one of the better quires. A medieval calendar. The hand is a bit too thick to be authentic, but these undergraduate students with no particular artistic training did a good job. It's hard work, but they certainly learn more this way than from a textbook or mere lecture.

    QUIRES.jpg QUIRES_0004.jpg
  14. Bart9349

    Bart9349 Junior Member

    What a great thread. Thank you.

    For anyone interested in ancient history and palimpsests, here's a book recommendation:
    "The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist"


    It really is a good read. Here's a book description:

    From Publishers Weekly
    In 1998, the auction house Christie's sold a medieval prayer book for more than $2 million. The price owed to a startling discovery: the prayers had been written over the earliest surviving manuscript of Archimedes (287–212 B.C.), the ancient world's greatest mathematician. In a delightful and fast-paced archeological and scientific detective story, Netz, a Stanford classicist, and Noel, director of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, make palpable the excitement this discovery evoked. After the auction, they were given access to study the palimpsest; after frustrating days of trying to read the writings beneath the prayer manuscript, Netz, Noel and a team of scientists and conservators turned to a variety of imaging techniques to reconstruct the hidden Archimedes manuscript, which turned out to be heretofore undiscovered works, Balancing Planes, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems and the Stomachion, in which Archimedes wrote about topics ranging from gravity to infinity. The manuscript also revealed some lost speeches by Hyperides, one of the 10 canonical orators of antiquity. Netz and Noel's book chronicles the often difficult and demanding work surrounding the preservation of antiquities as they uncover one of the most exciting documents of ancient history. 16 pages of color photos.

    Last edited: Aug 12, 2017
  15. Deacon Ray

    Deacon Ray Ancient coins connect us to our ancestors. Supporter

    Excellent post, jamesicus! I'm planning to download the CAPITALIS MONUMENTALIS font and try it out in some of my poster layouts. One of the fonts that works well in the ancient coin designs that I do is HERCULANEUM (not available in the forum selections)
  16. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    The numismatic world does, too. We call it overstriking. In addition to the usual 'guess the undertype' game we have examples where the flans were prepared in some manner to make them more suitable for reuse. Some were hammered flat making the undertype very rarely identifiable but leaving the flan thin and flat. Some were trimmed down to a new weight standard. Some were even cut in quarters allowing production of coins in the size needed. There is a coin owned by a few here which overstruck only the legend rings but left the central design. Most recycled coins were remelted but some students have studied trace elements so it might be possible to follow a path (like the modern British coins marked 'LIMA'). What happened to the tons of silver Augustus must have captured after Actium?

    What we need is a better word for the concept of recycling. 'Overstrike' has no class. Sometimes all we do is pick a language that sounds foreign to us and use their word:
    • Greek: ανακυκλώνω
    • Italian: riciclare
  17. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter

    Not boring at all to me -- it is all part of our learning experience -- and it all ties in together eventually.
  18. Varangian

    Varangian New Member

    First post but cannot resist. In geology we often look for evidence of earlier geologic events (e.g. Folding) preserved in mineral grains in a later-formed rock. Called palimpsests.
  19. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter

    Excellent @Gavin Richardson ! Best quality Vellum and Parchment is prohibitively expensive these days -- more pricey than gold leaf! I used to buy all of my skins from William Cowley (Newport Pagnell, just north of London on the M1 - home of Morgan motor cars). But I digress -- forgive me, I got carried away! Good quality skins are hard to come by these days - even the descriptions have changed. I used to mostly use Cowley manuscript Vellum for presentations - Goatskin Vellum for bookbinding. I laid in a good supply of skins years ago in anticipation of the rise in prices. Following is a (snippet) collage of old order/letters showing how it used to be:


    ...... and a fairly recent supplier's sampler showing changed descriptions:

    Last edited: Aug 13, 2017
  20. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Interesting. You should check out Pergamena. My class was on a strict budget, hence the cheaper goat skin. But Pergamena has a host of price and quality options and preparation options. One thing that was interesting to us was that the most efficient use of a skin yielded folio shapes that approximated the rectangular shape of the modern book-- just one of many connections between the books we read and the animals on the hoof.
    jamesicus likes this.
  21. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter

    Thank you for your comment @Bart9349 -- and for that excellent book recommendation.
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