Leather case for a wax tablet

I saw in the site stats a few days ago that someone was here looking for information on satchels for holding Roman wax tables. It’s a little late now, but here’s one I prepared earlier, back in 1995 for a leatherworking competition at a re-enactmentconference.

Waxed tabula were used as note-books and for medium term document storage, and were usually bound into books of two or three leaves, however tabulae with up to five leaves were not uncommon. In the military context, they seem to have been used by officers for writing orders and jotting down notes. A rectangle tucked in a fold of the tunic behind the belt on some first century grave stones was identified as a tabula cerata by K. Korber in 1927 1. To protect these tabula bearing important information — possibly for transferral onto bronze or stone, satchels such as those from Barr Hill 2 or Vechten were used.

Leather case from Vechten

Drawing from van Driel, C., Leatherwork in the Roman Army Part 1

The case is copied from the one found at Vechten, which was flattened by the weight of the strata above it, so the reconstruction is based on the shape of the leather and the positioning of the stitch holes. Most commentators suggest that the leather would have been waxed or oiled to improve strength and moisture protection.

 This Recreation:

Roman Wax Tablet Case

Tab. Pomp. 15 was used as the model, as this tabula has three leaves and the available wood was about the right size. The thickness (11mm) was taken from fragments found in the hoard at Roman Corbridge, (AD80-163) as this attribute was omitted from the Pompeii catalogue.

The pine was thinned and hollowed with all the finishing done by hand. The binding holes were drilled, and the sealing groove was filed. The exposed surfaces were treated with olive oil, and the bees’ wax was melted and poured in to the recesses. The leaves were bound with 3mm leather thong.

The flat end of the stylus was forged from a rod of 6mmf brass and the point filed, the whole article then was tinned using the technique of lead-wiping. The stylus length was chosen by comparing the length of the stylus with the length of the tabulae of both the “Girl with pen and wax writing tablet” 3 wall painting from Pompeii and the London Procurator’s Office Tabula 4 and applying that relation to the tabula at hand. It seems likely that the stylus was the same length as the spine of the tabula, so the stylus could be pushed in to the ties for storage, without overhanging the ends and damaging either the stylus or case. This relation holds true in both examples.

Roman Wax Tablet Case

The case was made from vegetable tanned leather from the top split of the hide (next to the skin). It was sewn using black dyed linen thread which had been rubbed with bees’ wax. The type of stitch used is the same as used on leather shield covers (tegimen), leather “envelopes”, and tents (papillio) of the period. The label was cut and attached — it may have been used to address the document. The leather envelopes from Vindolanda are known to have had the address and seal sewn on 5, and the tabula found at Roman Corbridge were associated with small scraps of papyrus 6 which may have carried addresses. The case was finally treated with olive oil for moisture-proofing.

[1] K. Korber, Mainzer Zeitschrift 2, 1907, p26: 11. 1916, p.57. Quoted in van Driel, C., Leatherwork in the Roman Army Part 1Exercitus: Vol 2 No1 (Winter 1986)

[2] Robertson, A., Scott, M., & Keppie, L., Barr Hill, A Roman Fort and its Finds BAR 16. 1975 fig28 no 39.

[3] Williams, Rosemary 1983 Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Abridged and Illustrated, Bison Books, 1983

[4] Scullard, H.H., Roman Britain — Outpost of the Empire, Thames & Hudson, 1991, p87

[5] Bowman A.K. & Thomas J.D., Vindolanda: the Latin writing tablets, Britannia Monograph Series no 4 1983

[6] Allason-Jones, L., & Bishop, M.C., Excavations at Roman Corbridge — The Hoard, English Heritage 1988, p86 & 87, Object 298 (Fig 103 — AMLab Photo )

Scottish Leather Cannon

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present for your edification and leather working pleasure, Scottish leather cannon.

Leather Cannon, West Highland Museum, Fort William

Double barrel type 2 leather cannon, West Highland Museum, Fort William.

The idea of leather guns was brought from Sweden to England in 1629 by Colonel Robert Scott. Witnesses of the guns said:

“These pieces are of very great use, and very easie and light of carriage. One horse may draw a peece, which will carry a bullet of a pound and halfe in weight, and doe execution very farre.”

Quoted in Firth, Cromwell’s Army, London, 1902

Sir James Turner, later spoke of the Swedish guns, “These guns which are called Leather-Cannon, … and are made with great art, and are light to carry, which is the greatest advantage they have” (Turner, Pallas Armata, Edinburgh 1683, p189).

Twenty-three leather guns are in collections in Scotland, all apparently of similar manufacture. Four are in the Scottish National Museum. They were designed for carriage by a horse for increased mobility. Records of their use in the UK span from 1643 through to the late 1680s.

Leather Cannon breech, West Highland Museum, Fort William

Layers of hemp cord and woven hemp cloth show through the remains of the leather cover.

The barrel was an iron tube made of sheet riveted together, strengthened by iron rings, not unlike other stave built iron cannon. The breech block appears to have been screwed into place. The barrel was then bound with one or more layers of hemp cord before having a leather cover sewn on. The seam went along the underside, unfortunately it isn’t obvious in my photos. Over the leather was a layer of copper sheet.

Leather Cannon muzzle, West Highland Museum, Fort William

The copper sheath is clearly visible at the muzzle, as is the strength of the reinforcing rings and the rivets on the barrel.

I know Mythbusters allegedly debunked the whole leather cannon “myth”, but I think they didn’t follow the construction correctly. Yes, I did shout at the telly, how did you know? I suspect they made the same mistake as the Irish at the siege of Ballynally Castle, County Clare, in 1642 by not including a properly sealed iron core.

If you are interested in reading further, get a copy of Stevenson & Caldwell, Leather Guns and Other Light Artillery in Mid-17th-Century Scotland from the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 108 (1976-7), 300-17 from here.

Photography and historic sites – some bits off topic

This trip differed from the previous two in the proliferation of both steam trains and leather vessels.

Braunton City of Truro Waiting 34070 Manston at Corfe Castle
Obligatory steam train photos. Don’t worry, it won’t happen again.

Another change was the number of sites that now allow photography that didn’t previously. The National Trust comes in for an honourable mention here, although it was inconsistently applied. I’ll share some of those photos later, there’d be more but a couple of sites absolutely littered with jacks and bottels got grumpy when I asked for permission to get the camera out, even after trying the “we just travelled 14,000 miles to get here”™ sob story, so a big theatrical boo! to Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust and the associated Hall’s Croft. The Birthplace Trust sites were inconsistent with their own rules, because Nash’s House explained how to get permission and I was able to take a couple of sneaky shots of the shoe horn and Mary Arden’s Farm let me blaze away to my heart’s delight as long as the flash was off. If anyone has a more easily concealable camera than mine, there’s a large bombard in the back room at Shakespeare’s Birthplace and a string of eight or ten costrels in the kitchen at Hall’s Croft.

The thing is, by not allowing photography several sites missed out on our Tourist Pounds. Over the space of a five week trip, this added up to a not inconsiderable amount.  There was no point going in to a site where we’d been before and had already bought the guide book if they weren’t going to let me take two photos in the back part of the building of something they considered too mundane to be in the guidebook or website. Some places with a camera ban were interesting enough that we went in and bought the guidebook and all the postcards instead, we knew about most of those before we left home and had budgeted for them. I shouldn’t be too harsh, these people own the places and objects and have the right to say yes or no, but some of them have some very funny ideas. My favourite was the group of lovely, helpful ladies a really nice place that claimed that non-flash photography of items in situ damaged things, yet had room lights on and curtains pulled back from the windows so it wasn’t UV degradation they were worried about. Maybe taking the image captured part of the object’s soul.

Karma obviously came in to play because each time, another place we visited shortly afterwards had a similar object and allowed photos.

Horn Cups
The following morning, in a museum we didn’t even know existed, surprise Elizabethan period horn cups. It was even the same number as at the place the day before with the curtains.
Corfe Castle Museum, Town Hall, West Street, Corfe Castle, Dorset. 

So people, please put your photography policy on your website so we can plan accordingly. I’ve organised permits in the past and did for one site on this trip, and other times it’s nice to leave the camera in the bag and just enjoy your place.

The (An?) Oxford Joiner’s Jack

Some time back I wrote about the dodgy habit dating of jacks based on painted decoration and used the Oxford Jointer’s Jack from Baker as an example of what looked to be a seventeenth century jack that had been given an 18th century date, due to a later painted design. I had a chance to see the jack while on a recent trip to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and having seen it in the flesh, am even more convinced that it is a mid-17th century jack.

Oxford Jointers' Jack, Ashmolean Museum

While the painted decoration is dated 1712, stylistically this large jack appears to date from the mid-part of the 17th century. The silver bands at the mouth and foot are painted imitations probably contemporary  with the paint. Sorry about the reflections in the glass, I wasn’t able to get around them.

Oxford Jointers' Jack, Ashmolean Museum

There are four layers in the handle, the embossed double lines around the spout are a characteristic of jacks of the period 1635-1650.

Oxford Jointers' Jack, Ashmolean Museum

Interestingly, this view shows three lines of stitching in the handle, rather than the more usual two.

There’s another problem. Either Baker’s painting is based on a fanciful interpretation of a possibly written account, or we were looking at two different jacks. The arms on this one are the same but much rougher and on an oval shield, the date 1712 is in the same position and appears to have been done by the same hand, all the other text is missing and the foliage in the painting has been reduced to rough blobs of white. Yet the leatherwork has all the characteristics that Baker highlights as reasons that it can’t possibly date to 1712. The guild must have had more than one, keeping the flash one for the important table and plainer ones for mere members.

I couldn’t see the other side but there is a watermarked photo of it here. If the link takes you to the home page, search for “Blackjack jug, 1712”.

Since writing the first part of this post, I’ve realised the jack Oliver Baker
was describing is the one with Iohn Baker (the use of the letter I as J dates
it to the period before 1650) and the one in my photos is the George Taylor one.
You can see part of the inscription in the Bridgeman Art photo in the link.

I hereby withdraw all assertions, accusations and snide comments, explicit or
implied, that Mr Baker had been too much at the laudanum.

14 November 2013

Fast forward a few years, I’m transcribing Baker’s early drafts into an electronic format for eventual publication (including the missing chapter on how jacks were made)… in chapter 3, p 134 of the typewritten manuscript, Barker observes:

The date of the arms and painting is therefore not earlier than the reign of Queen Anne, but the jack itself has the air of being rather older, and there are incised lines on the spout portion arranged in a pattern not unusual in jacks of the 17th century. It has also tho letters I G twice impressed in the leather, which are doubtless the maker’s initials. John Baker must have re-painted and perhaps presented the jack while holding the office of Master.

but it never made it into the final volume.

20 May 2017


I’ve found a couple of references to the jointers and freemasons being a single guild in the seventeenth century, and the jointers forming their own guild in the early 18th century, the date 1712 may refer to the founding of the guild and the jacks may have come from the original body. (See http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=22813#n338)

The Oxford Jointer's Jack, Baker's Plate 1

Baker’s Plate 1. I think I can see a top and middle line of stitching on the picture, similar to the ones in my photo above, probably meaning the jacks were all made by the same person/factory and only the quality of the painting differs. I may also be delusional.

Oxoniensia VII 114 (1942) E. T. Leeds, Leathern Jack of the Joiners’ Guild of Oxford plate X shows a scaled photograph of the Ashmolean jack from both front and left side. The text reads:

At the time of the disbandment of the old guilds in Oxford in the 19th century, their property was unfortunately scattered far and wide instead of being preserved in the city to be a witness to Oxford’s past. Some of the records and the box of the Cordwainers’ Guild came to the University at the death of Mrs. Herbert Morrell of Blackhall, while various pieces of plate have in recent years passed into the possession of the Goldsmiths ‘ Company and in one case of the Ashmolean Museum.

Last year the fine leathern black jack of the Joiners’ Guild (illustrated on PL. x) was presented to the Ashmolean Museum by Miss A. E. Badcock of Leamington Spa, whose family have a long association with the city. It has scroll-work stamped round the spout, the letters LG (twice) in front and a large 4 on the base, and is embellished with arms and labels in colours, red, yellow, green, white and black. On the front are the arms of the Joiners’ Guild, argent, a chevron between three compasses with mantling; on the left the arms of the City of Oxford, below which is the date 1712, the 2 painted over an original 3. On the left an escutcheon bears the name GEORGE TAYLOR MASTER in two lines. The date must have been corrected to record the year of his entry on the mastership. Another jack of the same guild is known. It is similarly decorated and also dated 1712, bears the name of John Baker as Master, presumably Taylor’s predecessor in office.

My current crackpot theory is the Oxford Jointers had four or more jacks, at least two of them were made in the period 1635-1650 and probably by the same maker. The similarly impressed initials on both tend to support this. Baker has a little to say on that subject, “When impressed in the leather with a stamp they may be regarded as those of the maker, as it could only be done successfully when the leather was wet and supported by the wooden block inside…  ” (p184).

During the time of John Baker’s mastery (which I haven’t been able to ascertain but the use of “I” instead of “J” does lend to a 17th C date), one jack was given the painted arms and escutcheon as befits the dignity of the jack used at the master’s table. Years later, possibly around the middle of the 18th century, the new master, George Taylor had another of the jacks painted to celebrate his mastery. Taylor’s wasn’t necessarily done as a copy of John Baker’s, as the arms of the guild and the city are common elements. The escutcheon does look to be copied, but that could be a coincidence. The execution of the painting on Taylor’s, is clumsy and looks to have been done by the stereotypical “bloke who could do it for cheap”. The 17132 date appears to be in the same paint and by the same hand as the rest of the design, the mistake possibly resulting from the date being painted in well after the fact.

Interestingly, the 1712 date on the John Baker jack appears to have been done by the same person at this later date. Another interesting element is the painted bands around the top on both and foot on the Taylor jack. These imitate the silver collars and in some cases foot rings which Oliver Baker comments on being mostly an 18th century innovation.

So, where did the John Baker jack end up after being in “…the collection of Mr. W. J. Fieldhouse at Wootton Wawen near Stratford-on-Avon.”? [Baker, p76]