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around 70 CE

Roman Stylus Tablet

Sequential Roman numerals on a wax tablet

Wax tablets were wooden (or occasionally ivory) boards covered with a layer of wax. They were widely employed as portable and erasable writing surfaces in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Writing was done by etching grooves in the wax using a stylus, and erasure using the other end of the stylus, which often contained a putty-knife-like surface for smoothing the wax. Since wax tablets were used for recording everyday activities such as tracking business accounts, doing simple computations, and recording notes and students' exercises, no special care was taken to preserve them. As a result, surviving examples typically originate from sources such as dump deposits.

Roman Stylus Tablet

This wax stylus writing tablet made of silver fir was found between 2010–2014 during the excavations of the Bloomberg London site in Walbrook, London. The three fragments are unique in being inscribed with nothing but numerical symbols. The tablet originated from the top layer of two dump deposits. The text seems to be a writing exercise for numerical symbols, possibly by a trainee clerk, bookkeeper or schoolboy.

Artifact dimensions

134 mm × 57.5 mm × 8 mm (8.5 mm thick on front, 7.4 mm on reverse)

Original artifact location

Londinium (historical name), London, United Kingdom (current name)

Current artifact location

Museum of London, London

Catalog number

Tab.Lond.Bloomberg

Timeline

Counting timeline Sumerian Earliest Known Math Table Sumerian 7 Quotient and 10 Product Tablet Babylonian School Multiplication Tablet Babylonian Reciprocals Tablet Rhind Papyrus Roman Stylus Tablet Bamboo-Strip Multiplication Table Venerable Bede's De temporum ratione South American Quipu Aztec Dates from Codex Mendoza Midewiwin Birchbark Scroll

Interactive Content

Computational Explanation

Additional Reading

  • Bungus, P. Mysticæ Numerorum Significationis. Bergomi, 1583–1584.
  • Cajori, F. "Romans." § 46–61 in A History of Mathematical Notations, Vol. 1. New York: Dover, pp. 30–37, 1993.
  • Chrisomalis, S. "Italic Systems: Roman." Numerical Notation: A Comparative History. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 109–131, 2010.
  • Menninger, K. W. "The 'German' Roman Numerals." In Number Words and Number Symbols : A Cultural History of Numbers. New York: Dover, pp. 281–294, 2013.
  • Smith, D. E. Rara Arithmetica: A Catalogue of the Arithmetics Written Before the Year MDCI with a Description of Those in the Library of George Arthur Plimpton of New York. Boston and London: Ginn, pp. 380–383, 1908.
  • Tomlin, R. S. O. Figs. 128 and 129 in Roman London’s First Voices: Writing Tablets from the Bloomberg Excavations, 2010–14. London: Museum of London Archaeology, pp. 237–239, 2016.