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Some Notes on the Writing of the Tucson Artifacts

The Josephus Cross

The Josephus Cross, with the legend of Benjamin, builder of the walls of Rome, memorial to Josephus, father of Oliver and annalistic inscriptions dated 880 (94.26.5B). Photo Robert C. Hyde.


fragment bronze roman

Fragment of bronze Roman law tablet incised in square Roman capitals from 1st cent. B.C.E.(CIL I 22, 2925, private possession Cologne, see Peter Weiß, “Zu einem neuen Fragment einer tabula legis,” ZPE 77, 1989, pp. 145-49, IX b).

All the Silverbell or Tucson Artifacts share one provenance and are preserved as part of a single acquisition. They are all of cast lead but one, the caliche monument labeled 2. To tally them, they comprise — discrete objects, most of them whole, some broken, some mended, double crosses placed together under one number, some pieces separated from each other, covering 32 accession numbers. Their accession or call numbers are all part of catalog #94.26, and they are arranged in chronological sequence according to sequence of excavation.

Because of their unity of origin and discovery, as well as uniformity of material and manufacture, the Calalus artifacts may be considered a single assemblage, that is, culturally unified. Though they may not individually be created by the same hand or may not separately date to exactly the same locale or time of origin, they belong together in all ways. The authorial intent behind their creation was one. Their societal purpose and use when above ground in their original historical and local context was one. Clearly, their raison d’etre was ceremonial and of a recordkeeping nature, and they were created to be a type of annalistic history.

It is obvious to most people who study them they were intended to form a prized group of cult objects as might be preserved in a religious house or treasury. The swords are not practical as weapons, being too heavy and not rigid enough or sharp in their blades. The crosses, nehustans and standards are institutional in purpose. These are not objects that were created for private gratification but rather for the eye of eternity.

We do not know if they represent all that survives of a more complete issue. No. 4 is a single cross, whereas all the other crosses are albums fashioned in two sealed parts. Since it has holes for joining together like the others, No. 4 probably had a companion cross joined to it. Because the excavations were broken off at the original site on Silverbell Road with the finding of artifact no. 32, it is anyone’s guess what related artifacts or associated archeological evidence may remain still buried in situ.

Reading Roman Inscriptions

There are some 300,000 known Roman inscriptions in the world, and this body of evidence grows at a rate of about 1000 new items a year. By convention, “Roman inscription” is used to refer to texts inscribed on a variety of materials surviving from antiquity. Normally they are preserved in the Latin alphabet, but not always; the language of civil administration south and east of Italy during the Roman Empire, and that of the Byzantine Empire that followed it for a thousand years until 1453, was Greek. An inscription does not have to come from Rome or even from within the Roman Empire to be considered Roman. Indeed, Roman inscriptions are commissioned and carried out even today, appearing on commemorative plaques and public buildings, and Latin is still the official language of the Vatican City government. The study of inscriptions has come to be known as epigraphy, from a Greek word, meaning “writing on a panel of material,” usually stone. The periods of Roman epigraphy are, generally speaking, antiquity, reckoned from the earliest inscriptions of sixth century Rome to the fall of the empire in the fourth century of the Common Era; Christian antiquity (3rd century to 6th century); medieval (6th to 15th); Renaissance (14th to 16th); and modern (16th century to present). Romans and their cultural heirs have inscribed texts for two and a half thousand years.

The Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, 1863-1986, Berlin) has eighteen divisions, which occupy shelves upon shelves in libraries and demonstrate the wide variety and enduring interest in the field, from inscriptions of the Roman Republic (to 44 B.C.) to Spain (II) and Britain (VII) and other provinces of the Empire, from inscriptions painted on house walls in Pompeii to monumental inscriptions in the city of Rome (VI), military diplomas, milestones and pagan inscriptions in verse (no fascicules yet published). A special division is devoted to inscriptions on clay, glass, metal and other non-stone surfaces in the city of Rome. Inscriptions are found reused in medieval churches (spolia), excavated in archeological ruins, preserved in museum basements and surviving in situ in ancient cemeteries and catacombs (4th to 6th cent.). There was never a time when their art was lost or they ceased to be made.[i]

[i] A good introduction, valuable especially for Roman inscriptions in Britain, is Lawrence Keppie, Understanding Roman Inscriptions (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 1991); the best reader for teaching yourself is perhaps Gerold Walser, Römische Inschriftkunst, 2nd rev. ed. (Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 1993).

A good introduction to Latin epigraphy, especially useful for Roman inscriptions in Britain, is Lawrence Keppie, Understanding Roman Inscriptions (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 1991); the best reader for teaching yourself is perhaps Gerold Walser, Römische Inschriftkunst, 2nd rev. ed. (Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 1993).

A distinction is made between epigraphy, the specialized study of inscriptions as documentary or archeological records of public life, and literary texts, which survive in manuscript and printed book traditions (the domains of paleography, philology, textual criticism). Coins belong in a separate category called numismatics. Everyday and private writings like correspondence and business records, which have mostly not survived because they were committed to perishable materials like papyrus and wooden and wax tablets or just used up, also fall outside the bounds, strictly speaking, of epigraphy, though a knowledge of papyrology as well as coinage, together with an acquaintance with ancient graffiti and the ephemera of rubbish heaps and archeological digs can be helpful in understanding the more formal scripts of monuments and gravestones.

The majority of Roman inscriptions were on marble, granite, limestone or sandstone. Metal, however, was an early and important material in Roman tradition. In A.D. 69, fire destroyed the Temple of Jupiter in Rome, which contained over three thousand bronze tablets relating to the history of Rome, all its treaties, edicts, religious texts and dedications thought valuable for public memory. Metal records were housed in public buildings under the keeping of archivists, but today form a tiny part of what survives. Many were melted down for their metal content or reused under regime change or in looting. The Calalus Texts may be considered examples of official records on metal. Lonely testimonies, they are all the more valuable because they survive intact.

Most inscriptions are cut into a prepared panel, and the letter-forms and word-stops may be enhanced with paint such the familiar red minium made from cinnabar or covered with molten metal, sometimes with fitted bronzed or gilded letters as can still be seen in the large dedication over the Pantheon in Rome. Our inscription, on the other hand, was made by the lost wax process.  Scripts were used according to a hierarchy of formality and artistry, with large square upright Roman capitals occupying the choicest position. This type of lettering is called scriptura monumentalis (script for writing on monuments). It was exclusively used on bronze panels and coins, and its presence always communicated romanitas, urbanity and officialdom. Below it was a range of less formal alphabets shading off into the rustic capitals of signs and notices and cursives found on writing tablets. When the writing implement was the brush rather than a chisel, the strokes of the letters have more pronounced serifs or finials, stemming from the trail of the brush when it was lifted and withdrawn from the surface. This type of writing is termed scriptura actuaria (writing for formal or public notices) and is standard for painted plaster, frescoes and wooden surfaces.

Sometimes scripts are mixed and inconsistent, with rustic or cursive or miniscule letter-forms carried forward from a draft text written by hand or carelessly introduced by the artist. The Calalus Texts survive in early medieval Roman capitals, in an alphabet which admitted certain uncial and cursive forms. Their overall impression is somewhere below monumental and above actuarial. They employ the classical set of 21 letters (ABCDEFGHIKLMNOPQRSTVX) without Z or Y, and lack J (the consonantal version of I), U (the vocal version of V), and W. V stands for both u and v.

The Calalus inscriptions belong to the end of a tradition that had flourished for more than fifteen hundred years. After their time of production (9th – 10th century), Roman capitals in their pure lapidarian form become less and less common, giving way to uncial and semi-uncial, and eventually the minuscule scripts of early printed books and today’s fonts, or becoming subject to deliberate antiquarian efforts to revive and replicate them, as in the Renaissance and Baroque.

[1] A good introduction, valuable especially for Roman inscriptions in Britain, is Lawrence Keppie, Understanding Roman Inscriptions (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 1991); the best reader for teaching yourself is perhaps Gerold Walser, Römische Inschriftkunst, 2nd rev. ed. (Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 1993).


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