Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Dispelling Some Myths: Romans brushed their teeth with Urine

While teaching primary school children about the Romans, and specifically hygiene, we have encountered the belief that they cleaned their teeth with urine. We mention this only because on May 9th, 2022, a link to an article by on this very fact was highlighted on Twitter by Roman historian and author, Dr. Mike Bishop (@perlineamvalli). In the linked article, ‘Ancient Romans Brushed Their Teeth with Urine’, Bryan Hill states: ‘The Romans believed that urine - both human and animal - would make their teeth whiter and keep them from decaying, so they used it as a mouthwash and mixed it with pummis to make toothpaste. In fact, urine was so effective that it was used in toothpastes and mouthwashes up until the 1700s’ (Hill, 2022). Dr Bishop, however, challenges the misleading implications writing that ‘not all Romans [followed this practice] as a matter of course’ and that the poet ‘Catullus (Poem 39) actually mocks someone for doing it’. Dr Bishop also notes Catullus’ implication that it was ‘a Celtiberian, not a Roman, trait.’ In other words, cleaning ones teeth with a urine-based mouthwash or paste was an un-Roman act, and any Roman doing so should be publicly ridiculed.

So, did the Romans brush their teeth with urine? Probably not. Be honest - would you? Yet why does this ‘factoid’ have such a hold on popular imagination? We suspect it is simply a case that it appeals to our notions of disgust.

Urine’s cleaning properties  Yet, in ancient times urine was a valuable commodity. It contains a wide array of important minerals and chemicals such as phosphorus and potassium. Urine was a rich source of urea, a nitrogen-based organic compound. When stored for long periods of time, the urea in stale urine decays to produce ammonia, a chemical used in many household cleaners today. Ammonia is highly effective at neutralising any acidity in dirt and grease, and is therefore very useful in breaking down fat molecules and removing stains from clothing. In ancient Rome, vessels for collecting urine were commonplace on streets. Passers-by would be encouraged to relieve themselves into them and when full the contents were taken to a fullonica (a laundry). The stale urine would be diluted with water in a large vat into which dirty clothes would be added. A laundry worker would then stand in the tub of urine and agitate the clothes with their feet in a similar way that a modern washing machine works (Kumar, 2013).

Vectigal urinae  In the 1st-century AD, Emperor Nero levied the vectigal urinae meaning ‘urine tax’ on the buyers of urine collected from public urinals. After Nero’s death in AD 68 the Roman world was plunged into a civil war known to us as ‘the year of the four Emperors’. Imperial power was eventually seized by Titus Flavius Vespasianus who became emperor in AD 69 and ruled for the next ten years until his death in AD 79. On his succession Vespasian began levying a series of taxes aimed at raising funds to restore the treasury’s finances and deliver the Empire from debt. One measure, re-introduced around AD 70, was charging for the collection of urine from the public urinals feeding Rome's Cloaca Maxima, its great sewer system.

Pecunia non olet  Known for his love of money and hardnosed taxation, Vespasian is also credited with introducing the first public toilets, nicknamed locally as ‘Vespasians’, in AD 74. However, his eldest son and future emperor, Titus, thought the urine tax a disgusting policy and complained to his father about it. According to the Roman historians Dio Cassius and Suetonius, Vespasian reputedly replied by picking up a gold coin and remarking ‘Pecunia non olet’ (‘money does not stink’) meaning that money is not tainted regardless of its origins.

A colourful past  Urine not only got clothes cleaner, but made colours brighter. Today cloth is coloured using chemical dyes but in the past natural dyes from seeds, leaves, flowers, lichens, roots, bark, and berries were used. These colours can leach out of cloth if it or the dyebath are not treated with mordant to bind the dye to the cloth’s fibres. The process works by wrapping dye molecules called chromophores inside a more complex molecule or a group of molecules to form a shell around the chromophores. The molecules forming this shell ensure the dye’s colour remains visible while enabling the dye to bind to the cloth and protecting it from bleeding away. Textile manufacturers quickly discovered that stale urine, or more precisely the ammonia in it, is a good mordant (Kumar, 2013).

Urine’s ammonia content was also important in the textile industry for bleaching wool or linen, and in tanning leather to soften it. Diluted in water ammonia acts as a caustic but weak base. Its high pH breaks down organic material making urine the perfect substance to soften and prepare animal hides for tanning. Soaking animal skins in urine also made it easier for leather workers to remove unwanted hair (‘unhairing’) and bits of flesh (‘fleshing’) from the hide.


Hill, B., (2022), ‘Ancient Romans Brushed Their Teeth with Urine’, Ancient Origins, available online (accessed May 12th, 2022).

Kumar, M., (2013), ‘From Gunpowder to Teeth Whitener: The Science Behind Historic Uses of Urine’, Smithsonian Magazine, available online (accessed May 12th, 2022). 

Kitchenalia: Roman Soldier's Cookware

In an earlier article, we challenged the idea that Roman soldiers cooked farinata, a type of unleavened bread made from chickpea flour, on their shields (link here). Given that Roman shields (Latin scutae; sing. scuta) were typically made of wood this is highly unlikely and at best a myth. So, if not using their shields, then what utensils might the average Roman soldier carry to cook with?

Roman army mess tin

Trajan's column in Rome depicts soldiers carrying objects similar to the one pictured (right). They are thought to be ‘mess tins’ (a much more modern military term) or saucepans used both for cooking and for eating from. Today they are frequently referred to as patera [1], but this is possible a misnomer.

In his account of The Jewish War, Flavius Josephus [2] records that, in addition to three days rations, each Roman soldier carried ‘a saw, a basket, a pick and an axe, as well as a strap, a bill-hook and a chain’ (Goldsworthy, 2003, 135). The ‘bill-hook’ may well have been a sickle for reaping crops. Regardless, Josephus’ statement is supported by a scene on Trajan's Column, pictured right, that depicts legionaries carrying their kit over their shoulders on a pole (Latin: furca). This consisted in part of a string-bag for forage, a metal cooking-pot (situla) and a ‘mess-tin’.

Examples of the latter have been discovered in most parts of the Empire (Davies, 2011). Now housed in museums, most paterae are made of cast bronze, often tin-lined, and sometimes with their handles and/or bowls highly decorated. The maker frequently stamped their name on it, as did the object's owner. The analogy with modern military mess tins seems obvious, but these pans were used in far wider contexts, such as in kitchens and in religious observances for making libations.

  In the material culture of classical antiquity, to the ancient Greeks a phiale is a shallow ceramic or metal libation bowl. In Latin the same object is named patera (pl. paterae) The most numerous were small plates of the common red earthenware onto which an ornamental pattern was drawn. Numerous specimens may be seen in the British Museum, and in other collections of ancient ceramic vases. The more valuable paterae were metallic, being chiefly of bronze, although wealthier families may have had one of silver. Libation bowls often have a bulbous indentation (omphalos, ‘bellybutton’) centrally underneath to facilitate holding them, and typically have no handles or feet. Although the two terms may be used interchangeably, particularly in the context of Etruscan culture, phiale is more common in reference to Greek forms, and patera in Roman settings (which should not be confused with the Greek (Πατέρας) patéras meaning ‘father’ and the Latin equivalent pater). In Roman art, the libation is shown performed at an altar, mensa (sacrificial meal table), or at a tripod. It was the simplest form of sacrifice, and could be a sufficient offering by itself.

Cooking pot

Also mentioned in Josephus’ description is a situla (pl. situlae). From the Latin word for bucket or pail, the term is used in both archaeology and art history to describe a variety of elaborate bucket-shaped vessels dating from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages. Usually fitted with a handle, all types of situlae may be highly decorated, most characteristically with reliefs in bands or friezes running round the vessel. A more utilitarian, undecorated, tin-lined version (pictured right) was more likely carried by Roman soldiers as a cooking pot.

Folding Frying Pan

While Josephus specifically mentions soldiers carrying paterae and situlae, archaeological evidence also suggest they used other items of cookware. Pictured right is our splendid replica of a late Roman frying pan or skillet made by Len Morgan. Earlier dated pans tend to have a fixed handle much like the patera already discussed, which gave rise to them being named as such. The original iron version with a folding handle, upon which the replicas is based, was found near the fort Gelduba (Krefeld-Gellep, Germany) and dates from the 3rd-century AD. A similarly dated folding handle pan, made for a soldier of the Roman army in Wales, is housed in the National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon. The folding handle makes perfect sense in a military context as it minimises the space needed to carry it.

The replica’s handle is attached by a single barrel hinge and pin to an integral tang, as shown in the bottom image (above right). The pan has a spout to drain off fat, just like the originals. It is made of 1 mm thick steel and measures approximately 235 mm wide, 630 mm long with the handle extended or 360 mm folded. The pan’s depth is approximately 25 mm and it weighs 1.25 kg.

Davies, R. W., (2011), ‘The Roman Military Diet’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goldsworthy, A., (2003), ‘The Complete Roman Army, London: Thames and Hudson.


1. To confuse matters, pa′tera was also the name given to round dishes, small plates or saucers which, according to Pliny (Natural History, XXX.8 s21), were sometimes used in cooking, an operation more commonly performed in pots [olla] and basins or bowls. They could also be used at meals to eat upon or to serve food. The use of paterae at meals no doubt gave origin to the employment of them in sacrifices. On these occasions they held either solid food or any liquid intended to be poured out as a libation. We find paterae frequently represented in conjunction with the other instruments of sacrifice upon coins, gems, altars, bas-reliefs, and the friezes of temples.

2. Flavius Josephus (c. AD 37 – c. AD 100) was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian. He initially fought against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War (AD 66-70) but surrendered to the forces led by the future emperor Vespasian in AD 67. Subsequently, having defected to the Roman side, Josephus set about recording Jewish history with special emphasis on The Jewish War which, written c. AD 75, recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation and includes his account of the siege of Masada.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Taking the Pee: should you drink urine?

Urine has been used throughout history for many different uses. As a freely available product - everyone produces at least some each day - its abundance has resulted in plenty of folk remedies aimed at treating a variety of medical conditions. Science, however, overwhelmingly agrees that urine is not safe or healthy to consume. In the present day, however, a small number of religious or alternative health organizations suggest drinking urine. What follows is a summary of why following such advice offers no health benefits and in fact could cause you actual harm.

The Risks: a waste product  Urine contains a potent combination of salts and chemicals that your body is attempting to remove. If you think about it when dangerous, toxic substances start to build up in your body, your urinary system is one of the primary methods working specifically to remove them from your body. Anything your kidneys filter out of your body winds up in your urine to be removed. By drinking urine, you are consuming these toxins that your body explicitly intended to remove. Apart from making no sense - who would actively drink a toxin - such behaviour can lead to kidney damage or disease as these organs need to work harder to handle the increased concentration of toxic substances. 

Moreover, and despite common misconceptions, urine is not sterile. Just like any other bodily excretion it contains bacteria. Depending on the method for gathering urine, it may also contain bacteria introduced from the genitalia of the urine source (a distasteful thought). Some of these bacteria can lead to serious infections and expose a person to numerous diseases.

While bacteria will not cause infection in all people who consume them in urine, they increase the risk of infection. People with weak immune systems and young children may be especially vulnerable. So, once again, drinking any type of urine can cause serious health problems unless it has been sterilized separately.

Conclusion: a reasoning person ought to quickly realise that consuming unsterilized, toxic waste products that could cause significant health problems is a pretty dumb idea.

The Risks: De-hydration  In movies and social media you can come across useful survival tips such as drinking your own urine to stave off dehydration. On the face of it that seems plausible since you are replacing lost fluid with, well, fluid. Medical science, however, says this is unlikely to actually help; in fact, it could cause you more problems.

The average adult’s urine contains a significant amount of salt. Remember, urine contains the chemicals and salts your body wants to remove. To complicate matters, the level of salt gets becomes more concentrated as you become more dehydrated. Dehydrated individuals can quickly reach excessive levels of sodium in their urine. Thus, by drinking urine you will be consuming even more sodium, and higher levels of sodium in your body quickly lead to feeling thirstier. 

Conclusion: drinking urine in these circumstances is a bad idea as your body quickly develops a negative feedback loop in which, despite drinking fluids, you feel thirstier.

To summarize:

Drinking urine will not improve a person’s health. In some cases, it may even worsen health issues.

Anyone seeking natural remedies should consult a doctor or another healthcare professional who is knowledgeable about the subject.

When access to water is scarce, it is important to seek a healthy source, such as clear rainwater, condensation, or water in food, especially water-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Drinking urine may make dehydration worse and intensify any side effects.


Brennan, D., Dr. (2020), ‘Are There Health Benefits to Drinking Urine?’,, available online (accessed May 12th, 2022).

Medical News Today, ‘Does drinking urine have any real health benefits?’,, available online (accessed May 12th, 2022).


1. Ogunshe, A. A., Fawole, A. O., & Ajayi, V. A., (2010), ‘Microbial evaluation and public health implications of urine as alternative therapy in clinical pediatric cases: health implication of urine therapy’, The Pan African medical journal, 5, 12, available online (accessed May 12th, 2022).

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Norse America

In our post ‘Dispelling Some Myths: Romans in the Americas’ we attempted to disprove a ‘theory’ that the ancient Romans had contact with South America which stems from the misidentification of a ‘pineapple’ in an early 1st-century AD Roman mosaic. Put simply, the Romans had no idea that the Americas existed and nor did they have the seafaring technology to safely navigate the Atlantic Ocean. We concluded that any suggestion of links between pineapples, Romans and the Americas is simply wishful thinking. But who were the first Europeans to reach the Americas?

Viking explorers  From raiders to traders to explorers, the people popularly called the Vikings [1] did not stop at settling in Britain. Exploring westwards, the Norwegians established settlements in the Orkneys, mainland Scotland, and the Western Isles. Between AD 800 and AD 1300, for example, they established one of their first settlements at Jarlshof in the Shetland Islands. Some sailed even further West to Iceland, which was an uninhabited island at the beginning of the Viking age. We even have a good idea when they arrived as scientists have dated a layer of volcanic sediment on the island to AD 872. Below this layer there is no evidence of human activity so it stands to reason that the first settlers must have arrived sometime in the late 9th-century after AD 872. But here’s an odd thought. Iceland would not exist as a nation today if its settlers had not included women, some of whom were born in the British Isles rather than in Scandinavia. 

Aud the Deep-Minded  While most of the settlers recorded in the Mediæval Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) are men, thirteen women are named as having made the journey in an open ship to claim land in Iceland. The most famous of these is Aud the Deep-Minded, who is celebrated in the Laxdæla saga for her achievements in moving her whole household from Scotland to Iceland, via Orkney and the Faroes.

Move over Christopher Columbus  Perhaps encouraged by the more adventurous longship captains, and the prospect on enriching themselves, some Vikings sailed even further West to an even colder, icier place which, in a truly inspired marketing ploy, they called ‘Greenland’. Regardless, the settlement in Greenland provided a springboard to further exploration westward. Beginning in the late 10th-century AD Norsemen explored and settled areas of the North Atlantic including the north-eastern fringes of North America. Evidence for the Norse colonization is corroborated by the remains of Norse buildings found at L'Anse aux Meadows near the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada in 1960 - some 4,500 miles from Norway. In October 2021 the BBC reported that, using an atmospheric radiocarbon signal produced by a dated solar storm as a reference, scientists had revealed the ‘exact felling year of [a] tree’ cut for the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows to AD 1021.

While the Norse settlements in the North American island of Greenland lasted for almost 500 years the only confirmed Norse site in present-day Canada, L'Anse aux Meadows, was small and did not last as long. It is unclear why the short-term settlements did not become permanent, though it was likely in part because of hostile relations with the indigenous peoples [2], referred to as the ‘Skræling’ by the Norse. Nevertheless, it appears that sporadic foraging voyages and trade with the locals may have lasted for as long as 400 years.


1. To call these people 'Vikings' is slightly misleading as the name does not really describe the distinct tribes, groups or communities of the Early Mediæval Period. It is also not a name that contemporary accounts or chroniclers used. You can find out more here.

2. In North America, the indigenous populations are known as Native Americans in the USA and the First Nation in Canada. Somehow the latter term seems preferable as it acknowledges who first inhabited the land and that those people had a developed notion of nationhood.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Dispelling Some Myths: 'Over and Out'

In the big scheme of things today’s post is a very minor ‘gripe’. It does, however, reflect on the historical accuracy of television dramas, documentaries and films. You may not have noticed it, but it happens pretty much every time characters interact over a radio. Once pointed out, then, like an ear worm, you will hear it often. Today’s bug bear is ‘Over and Out’.

In the history of radiotelephony (RT) certain words and phrases were adopted for accuracy, brevity [1] and clarity (ABC). Once they were agreed, these conventions have continued to aid communication and limit misunderstanding across the crackling airwaves ever since.

Correct RT procedure  The voice calling procedure (sometimes referred to as ‘method of calling’ or ‘communications order model’) is the standardised method of establishing communications between stations. The internationally agreed order is as follows:

1. It MUST begin with the callsign of the station you are calling, twice (never three times).

2. It MUST be followed by your callsign with the proword ‘THIS IS…’

3. You MUST give your callsign once, and once only.

4. Communicate (as necessary).

5. You SHOULD end your transmission with the proword ‘OVER’, or ‘OUT’.

An example  Imagine then that you wish to check that a station is receiving your transmissions. The procedure might be as follows:

STATION 1: ‘Callsign 2, Callsign 2, this is Callsign 1. Radio check. Over.’

STATION 2: ‘Callsign 1, this is Callsign 2. Reading you Loud and Clear. Over.’

STATION 1: ‘Callsign 2, this is Callsign 1. Roger. Out.’

In this simple example, both stations can hear and are responding to each other. The procedure words (prowords) ‘LOUD and CLEAR’ mean the signal strength is very strong and the quality of transmission is excellent (no background noise or signal interference). In the last sentence the proword ‘ROGER’ is used to acknowledge that the recipient, Station 1, has heard and understood the sender’s, Station 2’s, message. The proword in this context means ‘I have received your last transmission satisfactorily.’ 

In many US police and military themed television dramas or documentaries, and in films, you may hear the word ‘COPY’ used. We understand, however, that ‘COPY’ does not mean the same as the RT proword ‘ROGER’. It seems to be used when communications between two other stations, which includes information for one's own station, has been heard and received satisfactorily. That said, on TV and in film ‘COPY’ is increasingly used instead of ‘ROGER’ or ‘WILCO’. Indeed, for many commentators on the internet, both military and civilian, ‘COPY’ and ‘ROGER’ are becoming synonymous. In trying to explain the difference many of these same commentators then proceed to conflate the RT prowords ‘ROGER’ and ‘WILCO’. All of which just adds to the confusion.

So, if you want to be accurate stick to using ‘ROGER’ which originally came from the Morse code prosign ‘R’ meaning ‘received’. From 1943 to early January 1956, ‘ROGER’ was the code word used to spell the letter ‘R’ in the Allied Military phonetic spelling alphabets. Moreover, the use of ‘ROGER’ officially continued even after the word for the letter ‘R’ was changed to ROMEO in the NATO phonetic alphabet.

Contrary to popular belief, ‘ROGER’ does not mean or imply both ‘received’ and ‘I will comply’, however. That distinction goes to the contraction ‘WILCO’, the shortened form of ‘will comply’. In other words, the receiving station is acknowledging they have heard and understood the message and, as the phrase suggests, ‘will comply’ with any instruction. As should be evident, the phrase ‘ROGER WILCO’ is procedurally incorrect and redundant since it literally means ‘Received, Received and I will comply’. A tautological waste of time.

Returning to our example, in the initial call, and the subsequent reply, the word ‘OVER’ ends one station’s transmission to the other and indicates a response is necessary. In line one Station 1 is essentially saying ‘I’ve finished talking so now it is your turn to go ahead and transmit your reply.’ Put simply, the proword ‘OVER’ allows a conversation to be passed back and forth between stations.

Closing down  Unsurprisingly, ending a two-way radio call has its own set of procedures. Generally, the station that originated the call is the station that should terminate the call. To end a call all stations indicate their last transmission of a particular communication exchange by using the proword ‘OUT’ (meaning ‘This is the end of my transmission to you and no answer is required or expected’) or ‘OUT TO YOU’ (‘I am ending my communication with you and calling another station’). In our example, if Station 2 replied after ‘OUT’ then they will probably be ignored as Station 1 may not be listening or may not hear the transmission if they are calling someone else.

It should be self-evident now that if you send the transmission ‘OVER and OUT’, you are effectively saying ‘it’s your turn to talk, but I’m not listening’, which is a bit rude really, so don’t do it. OUT.


1. Military RT procedure champions brevity for a very good reason. The longer you transmit, the more time the enemy has to direction find (DF) and locate your position. If they do that, then what usually follows is something very explosive!

Monday, May 16, 2022

Recording History

History is not only the study of past events, particularly in human affairs, but it is most uniquely, also a continuous, typically chronological, record of such events. Anything before the invention of writing systems, therefore, is considered prehistory.

Writing was long thought to have been invented in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia) and spread over the world from there via a process of ‘cultural diffusion’ [1]. The discovery of the scripts of ancient Mesoamerica, far distant from Middle Eastern sources, proved that writing had been invented independently in at least four different times and places: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica. Of these original writing systems, Egyptian and Sumerian are the oldest known (Regulski, 2016).

This is not intended to be an in-depth look at all aspects of writing, alphabets, language and so on, but rather it is a brief guide to how some of the major societies set about recording their history.

Writing materials  There is no certainty as to which material was in most common use for the purposes of writing at the start of the early writing systems. In all ages it has been customary to engrave on stone or metal, or some other durable material, to produce a permanent record (McClintock and Strong, 1885. 990–997).

The common materials of writing were the tablet and the roll, the former probably having a Chaldean origin in Mesopotamia, the latter an Egyptian. The tablets of the Chaldeans are small pieces of clay, somewhat crudely shaped into a form resembling a pillow, and thickly inscribed with cuneiform characters (see below). Similar use has been seen in hollow cylinders, or prisms of six or eight sides, formed of fine terracotta, sometimes glazed, on which the characters were traced with a small stylus, in some specimens so minutely as to require the aid of a magnifying-glass(McClintock and Strong, 1885. 990–997).

Ancient Mesopotamia

The origins of writing appear during the start of the pottery-phase of the Neolithic, when clay tokens were used to record specific amounts of livestock or commodities (Hallo and Simpson, 1971, 25). These tokens were initially impressed on the surface of round clay envelopes and then stored in them (Hallo and Simpson, 1971, 25). The tokens were progressively replaced by flat clay tablets, on which signs were recorded by pressing a triangular stylus into soft clay tablets, creating characteristic wedge-shaped marks. The clay tablets were then baked to harden them and permanently preserve the marks. Actual writing is first recorded in Uruk, at the end of the 4th millennium BC, and soon after in various parts of the Near-East (Hallo and Simpson, 1971, 25).

Cuneiform is one of the earliest known forms of written expression along with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Cuneiform is a logo-syllabic script used to write several languages of the Ancient Near East. The script was actively used from the early Bronze Age until the 2nd-century AD. The last known cuneiform inscription, an astronomical text, was written in 75 AD in Assyria (Geller, 1997, 43-95). The script is named for the characteristic wedge-shaped impressions (Latin: cuneus) which form its signs. Cuneiform was originally developed to write the Sumerian language of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and continued in use with their successor cultures, such as the Babylonians.

The clay tablet shown right records the ‘Hymn to Marduk’ who became an important god in the early second millennium BC, when Babylon (under its most famous king, Hammurabi) became the capital city of a large Babylonian state. Marduk’s importance in the pantheon of gods rose with the fame of the city of Babylon, so that in later periods he was the supreme deity. The hymn celebrates Marduk as the ruler of the universe. It was written in the late 1st millennium BC, when the antique writing system was no longer used for communication or administration purposes.

Though the Assyrians and the Babylonians impressed their cuneiform on clay tablets, they also wrote on parchment from the 6th-century BC onward. The subject of parchment is discussed later.

Ancient Egypt

Heiroglyphs  Around 3,000 BC the appearance of distinctive figures forming a distinctive pictorial script marked the beginning of ancient Egyptian civilization. Known as hieroglyphs from the Greek for ‘sacred carvings’ each character of the ancient Egyptian writing system was more than a sophisticated form of picture-writing. Each picture/glyph served one of three functions:

To represent the image of a thing or action.

To stand for a sound or the sounds of one to as many as three syllables, or

To clarify the precise meaning of adjoining glyphs.

Writing hieroglyphs, and writing in general, was very important in maintaining the Egyptian kingdom. Literacy, however, was concentrated among an educated elite who could both read and write (such as the Pharaoh, the nobility and priests) and scribes who served the pharaoh, the temples, and the military authorities. Requiring some artistic skill only people from certain backgrounds were thus allowed to train as scribes. The net result was only 1% of Egypt’s population could write. The hieroglyph system was always difficult to learn, but in later centuries was purposely made even more so thereby preserving the scribes’ status. Others used a simplified version more suited to everyday handwriting: first the hieratic script, and later the demotic [2].

The knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs had been lost completely by the Middle Ages. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone by French troops in 1799, during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, led to the breakthrough in decipherment. The Rosetta Stone is uniquely inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The top and middle texts are in ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts respectively, while the bottom is in ancient Greek. The decree has only minor differences between the three versions, making the Rosetta Stone key to deciphering the Egyptian scripts. Knowing what the Greek text said allowed several 19th-century scholars to conduct falsifiable studies in translation. Eventually, Jean-François Champollion made the complete decipherment by the 1820s.

Papyrus  While wooden tablets are found pictured on monuments, the material in most common use in ancient Egypt, even from very ancient times, was the papyrus, having recorded use as far back as 3,000 BC (Gascolgne, 2001). Papyrus’ use was not limited to Egypt but used by many other Mediterranean societies for recording history long before paper was first used in China. In fact, the word ‘paper’ is etymologically derived from papyrus, which is, in turn, Ancient Greek for the Cyperus papyrus, a tall, aquatic plant of the sedge family native to the Nile valley and found chiefly in Lower Egypt. Thought to be common in ancient times, today the Egyptian subspecies, C. papyrus hadidii, only flourishes in certain areas.

Papyrus is made from the stem of the papyrus plant. First the outer rind is removed, and then the sticky fibrous inner pith is cut lengthwise into thin strips of about 40 cm (16 in) long. The strips are placed side by side on a hard surface with their edges slightly overlapping, and then another layer of strips is laid on top at a right angle. While still moist, the two layers are hammered together, mashing them into a single sheet, which is then dried under pressure. After drying, the sheet was polished with a rounded object, possibly a stone, seashell, or piece of round hardwood.

Sheets could be cut to fit the obligatory size or glued together to create a longer roll. A wooden stick would be attached to the last sheet in a roll thereby making it easier to handle. To form the long strip scrolls required, several sheets were joined together such that all the horizontal fibres parallel with the roll’s length were on one side and all the vertical fibres on the other. Normally, texts were first written on the recto, the lines following the fibres, parallel to the long edges of the scroll. The ancient Egyptians used reed pens to write with ink on papyrus.

Pen and ink  The pen is the most common form of writing implement using a hard tip to apply ink to a surface. The earliest versions were made by slicing a suitable nib point from the end of a thin, hollow natural material. The Egyptian reed pens could retain a small reservoir of ink by capillary action [3]. However, these ink reservoirs were relatively small, requiring the pen to be periodically dipped back into an external inkwell for replenishing.

While many ancient cultures around the world independently discovered and formulated inks for the purposes of writing and drawing, we know the ancient Egyptians were using ink on papyrus from at least the 26th-century BC (Tallet, 2012, 147–68). Our knowledge of these inks, their recipes and how they were made comes from archaeological analysis of surviving exemplars or from descriptions within a written text itself.

Ancient Egyptian scribes used black ink for writing the main body of text, while red ink was often employed to highlight headings, instructions, keywords, the names of gods, and so forth. The black and red inks were made from organic and inorganic material, primarily soot and ochre, mixed with a binder, typically gum Arabic, and suspended in water, and at times perhaps in other fluids like animal glue, vegetable oil, and vinegar (Christiansen et al., 2020, 27825–27835). The binding agent keeps carbon particles in suspension and adhered to the papyrus. The mixture was subsequently dried and pressed into pellets, which would be carried around by the scribe. A liquid ink could be prepared by mixing the pellet with a bit of water, when the scribe was ready to write (Christiansen et al., 2020, 27825–27835).

Usefully for us, carbon inks tend not to fade over time even when bleached or when in sunlight. Likewise, being chemically stable, carbon inks do not threaten papyrus’, or latter paper's, inherent strength. Despite these benefits, carbon ink is not ideal for permanence and ease of preservation. It tends to smudge in humid environments and can be washed off surfaces. The best method of preserving a document written in carbon ink is to store it in a dry environment (Barrow 1972).

Ancient Greece and Rome

Like the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Mycenaean Greeks also inscribed their records into clay tablets. The Greeks, however, did not routinely bake the clay. Much of the Linear B corpus from Minoan Crete that survives to us was accidentally preserved by a catastrophic fire which hard-baked those tablets.

Papyrii  As with the ancient Egyptians, the scrolls we typically associate with the Greeks and Romans were also made of papyrus. The example shown right, housed in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a Roman papyrus written in Greek and dated to the early 3rd-century AD. The papyrus contains a letter written by Heraclides to his brother Petechois. It is essentially a shopping list of items including poultry, bread, lupines, chickpeas, kidney beans and fenugreek at various prices that Heraclides wants Petechois to bring him. Such documents provide important evidence for the level of literacy in the Roman world and offer an insight into the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Wooden tablets  The numerous wooden tablets recovered from the excavations at the Roman fort of Vindolanda are another rich source of information on the lives of Romans and Romano-Britons living on the Roman frontier  near Hadrian’s Wall.

Written in carbon-based ink, which the Romans called altramentum, on fragments of thin, post-card sized wooden leaf-tablets, they date to the 1st- and 2nd-centuries AD (roughly contemporary with Hadrian’s Wall). Although similar records on papyrus were known from elsewhere in the Roman Empire, wooden tablets with ink text had not been recovered until 1973, when archaeologist Robin Birley, his attention being drawn by student excavator Keith Liddell, discovered some at the site of Vindolanda.

Although vary by author, the handwriting uses a cursive script considered to be the forerunner of joined up writing. The cursive writing style differs greatly from the Latin capitals typically seen on inscriptions. The documents record official military matters as well as personal messages to and from members of the garrison of Vindolanda, their families, and their slaves. Highlights of the tablets include an invitation to a birthday party held in about AD 100, which is perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman, Sulpicia Lepidina.

The holes and notches often present on these fragile tablets (see right) are for connecting several pieces together and for sealing a tablet prior to its dispatch through the official postal system or cursus publicus.

Wax tablets  Both the Greeks and Romans also used tablets (Latin tabulae; sing. tabula) made of wood and covered with a layer of beeswax [4]. These were often linked loosely to a cover tablet, as a ‘double-leaved’ diptych or sometimes a ‘triple-leafed’ triptych.

Writing on the wax surface was performed with a pointed instrument known as a stylus. A straight-edged spatula-like end, opposite the stylus tip, would be used to erase mistakes or make corrections by rubbing the wax surface smooth again. The modern expression of ‘a clean slate’ equates to the Latin expression ‘tabula rasa’ [5].

Wax tablets were used prolifically for a variety of purposes, from taking down students’ or secretaries’ notes to recording business accounts. Early forms of shorthand were used too. While these ‘reusable notebooks’ were widely employed, information requiring a more permanent record was probably transferred to papyrus scrolls for long-term storage. Regardless, wax tablets were the re-usable and portable writing surface in antiquity and continued in use throughout the Middle Ages.

Mediæval Europe

With the collapse of the Roman authority in Western Europe (post AD 476), the focus for literary development became largely confined to the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. Latin, never one of the primary literary languages, rapidly declined in importance (except within the Roman Catholic Church). What survived and flourished was primarily written in Greek and Persian.

The rise of Islam in the 7th-century, however, led to the rapid rise of Arabic as a major literary language in the region. Arabic and Persian quickly began to overshadow Greek’s role as a language of scholarship, and the primary script became Arabic in nature. In turn the Arabic script heavily influenced the development of the cursive scripts of Greek, the Slavic languages, Latin, and other languages. The Arabic language also served to spread the Hindu–Arabic numeral system throughout Europe.

Parchment  Parchment is a writing material made from specially prepared untanned skins of animals, particularly goat, sheep or cow, that has been scraped or dried under tension. It has been used as a writing medium for over two millennia predating paper and possibly even papyrus.

Vellum  Vellum may be distinguished from parchment by being of a finer quality and made from calfskin as opposed to that from other animals. The word is borrowed from Old French vélin 'calfskin’, from the Latin word vitulinum ‘made from calf’. Vellum is generally smooth and durable, although there are great variations depending on preparation and the quality of the skin. The manufacture involves the cleaning, bleaching, stretching on a frame (a ‘herse’), and scraping of the skin with a crescent-shaped knife called a ‘lunarium’ or ‘lunellum’ (from the Latin luna, ‘moon’). To create tension, scraping is alternated with wetting and drying. A final finish may be achieved by abrading the surface with pumice and treating with a preparation of lime or chalk to make it accept writing or printing ink. Vellum has been used to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books. Because of its hard-wearing properties UK Acts of Parliament are still printed on vellum for archival purposes.

The scribe’s preferred writing tool of this period was the quill pen. They were the standard writing implement in Europe through to the 18th and 19th centuries. Even today quill pens are still used in various contexts, such as calligraphy and formal settings such as major bank transactions. The most common quills were taken from the wings of geese or ravens, although the feathers of swans and peacocks were sometimes favoured for prestige.

During the Mediæval period, in the early 12th-century, iron gall (common ink) inks came to prominence. They were used for centuries and were widely thought to be the best type of ink, but iron gall ink is corrosive and damages paper over time (Waters, 1940). Items containing this ink can become brittle and the writing fades to brown. The rate at which it fades, however, is based on several factors, such as proportions of ink ingredients, the amount of ink deposited on the paper, and paper composition (Barrow, 1972, 16). Furthermore, manuscripts written in iron gall inks need to be stored in a stable environment because any fluctuation in relative humidity increases the rate that various acids form in the material the ink was used on. The resulting chemical reactions can physically weaken the paper, causing brittleness (Porck and Teygeler, 2000).


And finally, no guide to how history was recorded can be complete without mentioning one of the most fundamental additions to the scribe’s panoply: paper.

The first papermaking process was documented in China during the Eastern Han period (AD 25 to AD 220). The Han dynasty Chinese court official Cai Lun (c. AD 50-62 to AD 121) is traditionally credited as the inventor of a method of papermaking using rags and other plant fibres in AD 105 (Barrett, 2008). The discovery of specimens bearing written Chinese characters in 2006 at Fangmatan in north-east China's Gansu Province suggests that paper was in use by the ancient Chinese military more than 100 years before Cai, in 8 BC, and possibly much earlier as the map fragment found at the Fangmatan tomb site dates from the early 2nd-century BC (Buisseret, 1998, 12). It would appear that Cai Lun's contribution was probably adding tree bark and hemp ends to the papermaking recipe and standardising said recipe, and improving the overall papermaking process.

Even today Chinese characters are traditionally written with a brush, which is perceived as lending itself to a graceful, flowing stroke. A brush differs from a pen in that instead of a rigid nib, the brush is tipped with soft bristles which are gently swept across the paper with just enough pressure to allow ink to wick onto the surface. Traditionally, brushes have been loaded with ink by dipping the bristles into an external pool of ink on an inkstone, analogous to a traditional dip pen with an inkwell [6].

Chinese inks may go back as far as three or maybe four millennia to the Chinese Neolithic Period (Woods and Woods, 2000, 51–52), but the earliest evidence for Chinese inks dates to around 256 BC at the end of the Warring States period. These were carbon inks produced from soot and animal glue. Yet it is to the Chinese that the invention of India ink first goes; the name deriving from where the materials were sourced through trade with India (Smith, 1992, 23). The traditional Chinese method of making the ink was to grind a mixture of hide glue, carbon black, lampblack, and bone black pigment with a pestle and mortar, then pouring it into a ceramic dish to dry (Gottsegen, 2006, 30). To use the dry mixture, a wet brush would be applied until it liquified (Gottsegen, 2006, 30).

During the 8th-century, Chinese papermaking spread to the Islamic world, where pulp mills and paper mills were used for papermaking and money making. By the 11th-century, papermaking was brought to Europe. By the 13th-century, the papermaking process had been refined and industrialised with paper mills in Spain powered by waterwheels. In later Mediæval Europe, especially the 15th-century, parchment was largely replaced by paper for most uses except most luxury manuscripts. New techniques in paper milling made paper much cheaper than parchment, the former now being made of textile rags and of very high quality. With the advent of printing in the later 15th-century, the demands of printers far exceeded the supply of animal skins for parchment. Later European improvements to the papermaking process came in the 19th-century with the invention of wood pulp-based papers. With their introduction the cost of writing material began a steady decline and, apart from a brief flirtation with writing slates, paper has remained the mainstay for recording history.

A final word

Throughout history the nature of writing had been constantly evolving, particularly with the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments that have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making a physical motion with the hand. The impact of technology on the recording of history cannot be understated, and the sheer volume of information potentially available to future historians is mind-blowing. One wonders what, in all the trillions of stored bits and bytes, will survive or be deemed worthy of study.


Barrett, T.H., (2008),’ The Woman Who Discovered Printing’, London: Yale University Press.

Barrow, W.J. (1972), ‘Manuscripts and Documents: Their Deterioration and Restoration’, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Buisseret, D., (1998), ‘Envisaging the City’, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christiansen, T.; Cotte, M.; de Nolf, W.; Mouro, E.; Reyes-Herrera, J.; de Meyer, S.; Vanmeert, F.; Salvadó, N.; Gonzalez, V.; Lindelof, P.E.; Mortensen, K.; Ryholt, K.; Janssens, K.; Larsen, S., (2020), ‘Insights into the composition of ancient Egyptian red and black inks on papyri achieved by synchrotron-based microanalyses’, PNAS, 117 (45), available online (accessed May 6th, 2022).

Gascolgne, A.B., (2001), ‘History Of Writing Materials’, available online (accessed May 13th, 2022).

Geller, M., (1997), ‘The Last Wedge’, Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie 87 (1), pp. 43-95, available online (accessed October 24th, 2021).

Gottsegen, M.D., (2006), ’The Painter's Handbook: A Complete Reference’, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.

Hallo, W. and Simpson, W., (1971), ‘The Ancient Near East’, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.McClintock, J., and Strong, J., (1885), ’Cyclopedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature: Supplement’, New York: Harper.

Porck H. J. and Teygeler, R., (2000), Preservation Science Survey, Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources.

Regulski, I., (2016), ‘The Origins and Early Development of Writing in Egypt’, Available on-line: (accessed October 24th, 2021).

Smith, J.A., (1992), ‘The Pen and Ink Book: Materials and Techniques for Today's Artist’, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.

Tallet, P., (2012), ‘Ayn Sukhna and Wadi el-Jarf: Two newly discovered pharaonic harbours on the Suez Gulf’ (PDF), British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan. 18.

Waters, C.E., (1940), Inks, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards, United States Government Printing Office.

Woods, Michael and Woods, Mary, (2000), ‘Ancient Communication: Form Grunts to Graffiti’, Minneapolis: Runestone Press.


1. Cultural diffusion was conceptualized by Leo Frobenius in his 1897/98 publication ‘Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis’ as the spread of cultural ideas, styles, religions, technologies, languages between individuals, whether within a single culture or from one culture to another.

2. Hieratic is a cursive writing system used in ancient Egypt and the principal script used to write Egyptian from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC. Demotic script was derived from northern forms of hieratic used in the Nile Delta, and precedes Coptic, a family of closely related dialects descended from the Ancient Egyptian language. Historically it was spoken by the Copts of Egypt, starting from the 3rd-century AD in Roman Egypt.

3. They are known as ‘capillary-action dip pens’.

4. The Greeks probably started using the folding pair of wax tablets, along with the leather scroll in the mid-8th century BC.

5. Tabula rasa is often translated as ‘clean slate’ in English (more literally ‘erased slate’). The phrase comes from tabula, a wax-covered tablet used for notes, which was blanked (rasa) by heating the wax and then smoothing it. Essentially it means a ‘blank slate’, the state of a writing slate before written on with chalk. In the Roman and English sense both may be renewed repeatedly, by melting the wax of the tablet or by erasing the chalk on the slate.

6. Some companies now make ‘brush pens’ that resemble fountain pens in that they have an internal ink reservoir built into the handle which can be refilled with preloaded cartridges or a bottle-fill converter.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Why did the ancient Greeks exercise naked?

At the age of 12, ancient Greek boys would begin training at the gumnasion or gymnasium. Having a physically fit body was extremely important to the Greeks, and physical training was essential for improving one’s appearance, preparing for war, and maintaining good health in old age.

Much like today, the gumnasion (γυμνάσιον; meaning ‘training ground’) was a public place or institution used for exercise and communal bathing (thermae). Physical training and maintenance of health and strength were important parts of children's early education, something that was carried into adulthood. But an ancient Greek gumnasion was more than just a place to exercise. The Greek gymnasiums were also used for scholarly and philosophical pursuits hosting lectures and discussions on philosophy, literature, and music, and there were public libraries nearby. In gumansia the boys of wealthy families learned to ride horses as well as training in other sports including wrestling ('pale’), using a bow and a sling, and swimming. The palaestra was the part of the gymnasium devoted to wrestling, boxing and ball games. The supervision of these institutions was entrusted to public officials (gumnasiarchs) who responsible for the conduct of sports and games at public festivals, supervised the competitors, and directed the schools.

Athletes exercised, trained and competed nude, a practice said to encourage aesthetic appreciation of the male body and as a tribute to the gods. Given that gumnasia were for men only, there was no fear of the sexes being shocked or offended by nudity.

The name gumnasion derives from the ancient Greek word gumnós meaning ‘unclad’, ‘without armour’, or in modern terms ‘naked’. Gumnós is also the root of the verb gumnazo (γυμνάζω), whose meaning is ‘to train naked’, ‘train in gymnastic exercise’, or more generally ‘to train, to exercise’. 

The English word gymnast, first recorded in 1594, is derived from the Greek gumnastēs (γυμναστής), but in Greek this word means the teachers, coaches and trainers of the athletes, not the athletes themselves or those exercising. But why did Greek men exercise naked? According to the late Neil Faulkner FSA, many explanations are offered (Faulkner, 2012, 33):

  • The 5th-century BC historian Thucydides credits the Spartans with introducing the custom of ‘publicly stripping and anointing themselves with oil in their gymnastic exercises’.
  • Some contend it was the Athenians who passed a law making nakedness compulsory after a runner leading a footrace tripped and fell when his loincloth unravelled.
  • Alternatively, according to Pausanias [1], the example was set in the Olympiad of 720 BC when Orsippos of Megara also lost his loincloth, only he went on to win the stadion race. Or was it Akanthos of Sparta who did the same?

With so many different origin stories it seems safe to say that none of the Greeks were sure when and why athletic nakedness began. Nudity had certainly not always been the case as the heroes of Homer’s tales, set, we think, in the early 12th-century BC, did not strip off for games. According to Faulkner, it seems the practice dates from some time after 750 BC (Faulkner, 2012, 34).

In his book ‘A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics’, Faulkner offers three possible explanations, the first being purely practical. One way you could identify a Greek athlete heading to the gumnasion was from the personal kit everyone carried: an oil flask (aryballos), strigil (stlengis), and a sponge (spongos). It was the Greek practice to coat the skin in oil before exercise (cf. the Spartans above), and to scrape the oil, sweat and dust off afterwards before washing at a basin. While the oil acted as a sunblock and kept dirt out of the pores, it would have made a mess of clothing. Going naked then makes sense.

A second explanation suggests that going without clothes had a ritual significance. We know the Olympic Games were dedicated to Zeus and its festivals rooted in ritual and symbolism. Perhaps athletes entering the Games shed their clothes to appear naked before Zeus to eventually emerge purified and transformed by the festival’s end.

Perhaps nakedness somehow represented Greek ideals of democracy. All athletes were citizens of their polis (‘city-state’) enjoying legal protection and political rights. Admittedly, the actual extent of democracy varied considerably compared to our modern notions, but the flaunting of one’s wealth was seen as uncouth. Stripping off the trappings of prosperity and affluence meant rich and poorer citizens could appear, on the skin’s surface at least, as equals.

Yet perhaps the answer is even simpler. Unlike today’s multi-million dollar businesses manufacturing and retailing specialised sports clothing to satisfy the health conscious or fashion trends, the average ancient Greek owned far fewer clothes. Why ruin them by getting their khiton ('tunic') drenched in perspiration? After all the Greek climate is warm and comfortable enough to go sans clothing, and it seems the ancient Greeks had fewer hang ups over nudity. Moreover, given the ancient Greeks apparent uncertainty as to why the practice started perhaps they did what humans have done for millennia to explain the unknown - athletes going naked became a ritual to appease the gods.


Faulkner, N., (2012), ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics’, London: Yale University Press.

Pausanias, 5.6.7-8. Translation by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod, Cambridge, 1918.


1. Greek traveller, geographer and historian of the 2nd-century AD. He is famous for his ‘Description of Greece’ (Ἑλλάδος Περιήγησις, Hellados Periegesis), a lengthy work that describes ancient Greece from his first hand observations.

2. Kallipateira was a granddaughter of Damagetos, king of Ialysos. Her father, Diagoras of Rhodes, was a celebrated boxer and Olympic victor. In fact, Diagoras won the boxing at several Panhellenic games and was honoured by Pindar in his ‘Olympian Ode vii’. Kallipateira’s brothers were also Panhellenic champions: Damagetos won pankration events and Akousilaos won in boxing. Her younger brother Dorieus was the most successful, winning the pankration at 21 different Panhellenic games.