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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 )

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