Review – Writing and Power in the Roman World: literacies and material culture

1 min read
Hella Eckardt
Cambridge University Press, £75
ISBN 978-1108418058
Review Frances McIntosh

As you would |expect from CA’s Archaeologist of the Year, this is an extremely well-researched and well-written book. Split into three parts, the first deals with understanding writing and literacy in the Roman world. Part two tackles the data (inkwells), with a focus on metal types. The final section considers writing equipment in terms of identities and social context.

Discussing the study of writing and literacy in the context of other disciplines and periods, such as the medieval world, gives a secure background against which to understand the Roman archaeological evidence. By looking at writing practice – who was writing, and why – one is able to consider the inkwells in their context.

The detailed typology Eckardt has created for the metal inkwells will be useful for all finds specialists trying to place their pieces into a broader context and date. With a dataset of over 400 items, alongside the categories based on design and decoration, it is a valuable resource.

One interesting chapter deals with the volume of ink that could be put into the various types of inkwells, and brings in the expertise of a modern calligrapher to consider how much text could be written with that amount. This is a fascinating insight into the actual practical task of writing, and a valuable addition to the study.

The final section, dealing with spatial and social distribution, looks at the contexts in which these inkwells are found. Of the 440 inkwells in Eckardt’s dataset, 131 come from burials. This high number provides a basis for discussion of the display of literacy in funerary rites, and what this means for how it was viewed in the Roman world.

This book gathers a huge amount of research and information from multiple disciplines to create a well-rounded study of literacy in the Roman world. It is always a pleasure to see a new group of materials being brought to light and used to elucidate our understanding of the past.

This review appeared in CA 340.

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